Michel Hazanavicius’ effervescent The Artist seems to be staking out a curious territory during the 2011-12 film awards season. On the one hand, it feels like it was genetically engineered to grab movie critics’ attention more than that of general audiences: It’s in black and white, it’s silent, it swoons over cinema history and its creative team is made up of people whose names are hard to pronounce. Yet its multiple critics’-group wins have occasionally felt like the recognition of an acceptable compromise between the esoteric artsyness of something like The Tree of Life and serious-minded popular hits like The Help. What’s not to like about The Artist? And then again, what is there, exactly, to love about it?
There are many ways and reasons to fall in love with a movie, and every one of them is intensely personal. It can be the spark of a ripping yarn told with style and energy; it can be nailing every beat of an emotional story; it can be hitting your funny bone in ways that make you beg for mercy. But what the movies I love almost never do is leave me spending much of their running time thinking about another movie. And as charming as The Artist may be, when that other movie is the one I love more than any other—Singin’ in the Rain—there was almost no chance it was going to leave me swooning.
The story opens in 1927, at the premiere of the latest adventure starring silent-film actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, from director Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 French espionage farces). Valentin’s the top dog at Kinograph Studios, cocky but amiable enough to pose with a perky aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who stumbles onto the red carpet. Unfortunately, the rise of “talkies” may be the innovation that leaves Valentin’s career in the dust, even as Peppy takes advantage of her own opportunities to rocket past Valentin toward stardom.
Virtually from the first frame, Hazanavicius shows he understands how to tell his story visually. The opening sequence at the movie premiere quickly conveys Valentin’s infatuation with his own celebrity—as well as his relationship with his scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier, Uggie—while showcasing the remarkably evocative musical score by Ludovic Bource. The quiet, understated character moments—which should have been the toughest to pull off, even with intertitle cards providing the dialogue—have a surprising sweetness, even when Hazanavicius is employing Valentin and Peppy’s relative position on a staircase as an obvious metaphor for their respective ascending and descending careers. And there are plenty of terrifically funny moments, most notably a sequence that uses sound effects to capture Valentin’s growing anxiety over his industry’s changes.
That anxiety becomes part of a delightful performance by Dujardin that gives The Artist much of its appeal. It’s a simple character arc—from penthouse to flophouse, with the requisite humbling moments in between—but Hazanavicius gives Dujardin the chance to play the transition subtly, with a starting point that allows Valentin to be likeable even in his initial smile-at-my-own-portrait self-regard. While Bejo’s spunky heroine has her moments, The Artist is really Dujardin’s wonderful show.
He also bears an uncanny resemblance to Gene Kelly when he lets loose with Valentin’s grand smile—and that’s only part of what makes it hard to avoid the comparisons to Singin’ in the Rain. Like the MGM classic, this is also a tale of the transition from silent film to sound, as well as a romance between an established matinee idol and a young woman trying to break into the business. Hazanavicius plays a lot with movie nostalgia throughout the film, from dropping iconic quotes to using familiar music like Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo, and his affection for the classics is undeniable. But that’s exactly what makes it hard to shake the feeling that for all its satisfying moments, The Artist is mostly an exquisite forgery.
Should an absence of start-to-finish originality erase the pleasures of superb execution? Certainly not. Yet perhaps that quote from Vertigo’s music has another evocative quality: It reminds that there’s something just slightly off when you try to recapture a feeling with something that merely resembles the real object of your love.
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman