A love letter to silent cinema sealed with a smirk, “The Artist” reteams director Michel Hazanavicius with dapper “OSS 117” star Jean Dujardin for another high-concept homage, delivering a heartfelt, old-school romance without the aid of spoken dialogue or sound. Projected in black-and-white in the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, this crowd-pleasing comedy tips its top hat to those late-’20s Hollywood conventions rendered obsolete by the rise of the talkie as a pompous star fails to adapt to the new era. However inspired, pic will take careful handling to shatter the arthouse ceiling, as today’s auds demonstrate little nostalgia for cinema’s roots.
In a way, the medium is in similar transition today, as such sincere, emotional stories are forced to compete with digital spectacle and 3D extravaganzas. Fortunately, it’s a challenge well suited to the Weinstein Co., which announced its acquisition of U.S. and some international rights to this unique French-financed, American-made entry on opening day of the Cannes Film Festival. TWC’s retro-style logo had already been attached to the front of the film by the time it screened four days later.
“The Artist” opens in 1929 on a film-within-a-film starring matinee idol George Valentin (Dujardin), a square-jawed, double-breasted Douglas Fairbanks type (though his masked screen persona cuts a silhouette that suggests France’s Fantomas character). Having mastered the Sean Connery shtick for the spoofier “OSS 117,” Dujardin turns his impeccable imitation skills on a host of early film stars, combining Rudolph Valentino’s smoldering appeal and slicked-back hair with Errol Flynn’s panache and pencil moustache, while preserving an essential sincerity in the process.
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Though the packed movie palace erupts into a boisterous ovation as soon as the house lights come up, we hear nary a clap, since Hazanavicius has committed to telling his story MOS (save for two unforgettably hilarious exceptions). Instead, the helmer relies on infrequent English-language intertitles and a grand, period-appropriate score from “OSS” collaborator Ludovic Bource, which carries the emotion and energy of the film without resorting to anything so modern as a theme. Outside his premiere, Valentin finds himself sharing the red carpet with a star-struck aspiring actress, Peppy Miller (played by Hazanavicius’ real-life wife, Brazilian stunner Berenice Bejo).
Though Peppy seizes the opportunity to score a small dancing role in the studio’s next picture, Valentin’s producer (John Goodman) is furious that the pompous star’s antics have upstaged his film. It doesn’t help that Valentin is completely distracted by Peppy on set, blowing take after take as the cameras witness him falling in love. Back in Valentin’s dressing room, Peppy proves equally smitten, cozying up to his overcoat in a bit that perfectly fits how one of her characters might behave onscreen.
More respectful of his marriage to forever-dissatisfied Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) than most actors of the era were toward their spouses, Valentin resists making a pass at Peppy when the time seems right. Such courtesy has consequences, however, forcing their romance into a state of unrequited suspension as their careers veer in opposite directions: Peppy embraces the talking-pictures era, a nice sequence recapping her rise through the credits of several films, while Valentin scoffs, “I’m the one people come to see. They never needed to hear me.”
Truth be told, there’s good reason Valentin resists this new fad in filmmaking, though we don’t learn his secret until the very last scene. Along the way, Hazanavicius has inventive fun with the character’s silence, particularly in one dream sequence where Valentin hears foley effects for the first time, yet still finds it impossible to speak. At home, divorce-ready Doris gives new meaning to the words, “We need to talk, George.”
Valentin’s only companions during his harsh fall from the spotlight are his chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) and faithful Jack Russell terrier — one of those star dogs well trained enough to rescue his master from scrapes both onscreen and off. But Peppy holds a place for Valentin in her heart, evident not only with each successive encounter, but also in her discreet actions to support the self-destructive star without his knowing.
Although Valentin represents a corny breed of heartthrob for which today’s auds have no use, Hazanavicius looks to the more artistically ambitious films of the era (and several subsequent decades) to inspire his own directorial style. Cribbing from Fritz Lang’s “Spies,” he stages a conversation between Valentin and Peppy on the stairs of Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building, while undercranked extras speed by around them. Later, Valentin’s climactic meltdown lifts an overhead shot straight from “Citizen Kane.”
Such references are offered less for the benefit of film geeks than for the mere fact that they offer the most elegant solutions for framing the scenes in question. Rather than using the harsh, stagebound look of the period, d.p. Guillaume Schiffman embraces the softer, more glamorous lensing of ’40s-era Hollywood productions, shooting on color stock and then converting it to black-and-white in post. The look flatters the cast, especially Dujardin, whose incandescent charm comes through just fine with his arsenal of arched eyebrows, wry smiles and the other nonverbal tricks.