Not liking The Artist is not liking kittens or puppies, not because it’s a kid film, it’s not, but because director Michel Hazanavicius layers on sentimentality without deigning to the intelligence of the audience. You can’t help being attracted to the pure charisma flowing off Jean Dujardin’s smile.
Dujardin plays silent movie star George Valentin whose arc consists of meeting everyone going down the ladder of success that met him while he was in his ascendancy. We meet Valentin at the height of his career a Fairbanks style hero greeting his fans onstage as the curtain closes on his latest silent blockbuster, in this case a spy meller that seems to portray Russians as bad guys as if the cold war started in the Victorian era. As sound ushers in the beginning of talkies Valentin finds his status compromised. A young femme, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), Valentin encounters when she’s playing an extra will eventually come to his aid when she’s the nation’s hottest star and Valentin has been reduced to depression and self-pity. Alongside Valentin the entire time, both at home and on screen is Uggie, possibly the world’s cutest Jack Russell Terrier. John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell co-star.
The catch is (there’s always a catch) the whole film is black-and-white and silent. This premise gets an altogether athletic treatment from Hazanavicius as he contorts what you can expect a silent film to do, and makes The Artist jump through hoops with crowd-pleasing payoffs.
Obviously the three main artists on display, Hazanavicius, Dujardin and Bejo are French but The Artist smells of pre-Depression Americana from its costumes and cars to the script that suggests A Star is Born with a happy ending. Other films that could be conjured from The Artists’ benign portrait of time past include Cinema Paradiso (classic film references mixed with a celluloid fueled fire) and Singin’ in The Rain (how sound replacing silent film downsized careers). You could also assume a relation to the decline of John Gilbert’s career and the failure of his relationship with Greta Garbo. The Artist doesn’t go there, but the audience does. Hazanavicius uses the interplay between what we see on screen to what a silent film audience sees when Hazanavicius cuts to the movie audience and their silent wide-eyed reactions followed by equally silent laughter, telling us all we need to know about what’s happening on the screen.
But The Artist isn’t quiet. A score by Ludovic Bource evokes a bevy of happy moods. Sometimes the music stops on an action note, and we continue to watch in silence until seconds later the lilting strain of another piece different in tone but similar in moods starts up. Hazanavicius /Bource even use a song from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo at a crucial moment.
Hazanavicius previously helmed Dujardin in a couple of modern day OSS 117 spy spoofs. The OSS 117 series consists of novels and film adaptations all of which pre-date the Bond series. Bejo also appears in OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, the better of the two (OSS 117: Lost in Rio).
The Artist is unreeling in an exclusive engagement at the River Oaks Three.
— Michael Bergeron