Big-name silent era movie star loses it all when talkies come into vogue while the girl of his dreams hits it big in those very same pictures. Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it in the past 40 years? (I’m thinking the Kristofferson/Streisand Star Is Born.) Have we seen it good in the past 75?
The Artist is a love song to ‘30s movies—more ’30s than ’20s in my estimation—done in beautiful black-and-white and pseudo-silent. George Valentin is Douglas Fairbanks-style action movie hero, on top of the world, who gives an ingenue Peppy Miller (a sort of Mary Pickford-type) her big break in the movies after a chance meeting throws her into the public eye.
Fortunes are reversed when talkies appear and Valentin refuses to talk even as Miller’s star rises. What follows is a story of loyalty and love as people move in and out of Valentin’s life.
This movie is filmed in black-and-white and is mostly silent, and is a wonderfully simple tale told elegantly, with Jean Dujardin in the lead role. He channels a mix of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly, and he manages to do it with just enough broadness to make him feel like an authentic ’20s actor and enough warmth to feel an authentic ’20s person.
Bérénice Bejo is somewhat less successful, though not because she doesn’t have the mannerisms down. She’s a little broader, a little more like a zany Ziegfield girl, but ultimately very winning. Her only weaknesses are that, at 35, she’s a bit old to be playing the ingenue and, as a modern actress, she’s way too lean. (Modern actresses tend to be so lean their skin looks positively stretched over their faces.)
It feels nitpicky, but it’s a bit jarring.
Director (and husband to Bejo) Michael Hazanavacius manages to capture a lot of the ’20s/’30s directorial style while taking advantage of some modern shots to avoid the more static elements of old-style movie making. And his script manages to comfortably move between the depths of despair and comic lightness in a way that feels very true to the era and is still affecting nearly a century later.
This is the first (and so far the only) unalloyed success of the season, I would say. It reminds me how little we ask for in a movie, really: There’s no complex plot, no fancy sets, no CGI to speak of (I assume there’s always some in movies these days), the score is traditional… There’s a heroic, loyal dog. It’s just over 90 minutes, minus the credits.
Oh, it’s not for everyone, I guess. Some people won’t be able to accept the straightforwardness of it. The simplicity of the characters. The silent/colorless aspect. And it’s very French in parts, with a couple of things you’d never have seen in a movie of the time.
But The Boy and I both liked it quite a bit. It’ll be easily rewatchable.
Some stunt casting of American actors, presumably to try to draw in the American crowds: Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s wife, Missi Pyle (who got high billing!) has a small part in a few scenes, Malcolm MacDowell, Stuart Pankin, and even ’80s B-movie starlet Jewell Shepard has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.
John Goodman has a meatier part as the producer who sees the changes on the wind, and James Cromwell is the #3 character, playing Valentin’s ever faithful man-servant.
This is worth seeing over the other Oscar-bait movies this year, and even in spite of its Oscar-bait positioning, if you have any love of the old films.