I'm wary of gimmicks in movies, whether it's the egregious use of 3D, the overuse of CGI or Adam Sandler in a serious role. Making a black-and-white silent film in 2012 certainly qualifies as a gimmick, but even more than that it's a nostalgic gimmick, and just writing that phrase makes me wince with the imminent dread that I'm about to be told how much better things used to be.
The Artist assumes first and foremost that there is an audience for a style of film that no one under 90 remembers seeing in a theater. That's a risky assumption given that it's hard to long for something you've never experienced.
Also of concern: The hype surrounding The Artist has focused almost exclusively on its antique genre, with little mention of, you know, plot. It's a little bit like waxing poetically about the cars of the 1950s and failing to mention that none of them had seatbelts. And have I mentioned that I'm wary of gimmicks?
The Artist, thankfully, sheds the gimmick tag before the end of its first scene, as it becomes apparent that the film isn't just going to reintroduce a long-dormant cinematic style; it's going to reinvent it, and do so with a carefree energy that will make your grandmother's 25-cent matinee look like a dusty relic.
That's both a relief and a wonderful surprise. The surprise here isn't that the film succeeds without the assistance of words or color, but rather that the story is simultaneously moving, poignant and funnyso much so that you may forget that no one on screen is talking. That's what you call good acting.
The Artist is a silent film about the golden age of silent films. When we are introduced in the first scene to George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the silent-movie star is at the apex of his popularity. We meet him as he sits behind the screen listening to the audience react to the premiere of his latest film. We know right away that he lives for this moment, energized by the stardom that feeds his over-sized ego and bombastic spirit, but he's charismatic enough that no one seems to resent his success.
Valentin would be the Brad Pitt of his age, if Brad Pitt had an oversized portrait of himself in the foyer of his mansion ... which, now that I think about it, doesn't seem completely out of the realm of possibility. Dujardin is brilliant as a man who happily embraces all there is to love about fame, milking the crowds for encores and eager to please the throngs of fans who wait for him outside the theater.
But the year is 1927 and time is not on Valentin's side. The era of the silent film is nearing its end thanks to those newfound "talkies." The soon-to-be-star of that new genre is the aptly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who crosses paths with Valentin early on. These scenes are the film's best. She's the eager upstart with a crush on the charming superstar. He's the seasoned pro, loving every second of it and totally oblivious that the good times are coming to a screeching halt. Backed by a lively soundtrack, the two flirt and dance with a charming innocence.
There are hints of the looming cinematic changes inserted subtly into a few of these scenes. We hear someone breathing and it sounds completely alien. We hear items as they are moved across a table and are as startled as the characters in the film. The world is about to change.
When Valentin's downfall arrives, it is harsh and quick and double-edged. He's rendered irrelevant by the talkies and then wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929. As Miller goes from back-up dancer to Hollywood starlet, Valentin loses his wife, his mansion and, in one final humiliation, all of his belongings, which are unceremoniously auctioned off.
It's an age-old tale that never feels old. Though The Artist drags a bit as we follow Valentin's long and painful downfall, it's boosted time and again thanks to fantastic supporting performances by John Goodman as the cantankerous studio head and James Cromwell as a loyal chauffeur. Dujardin and Bejo have both been nominated for Oscars (as has the film itself for Best Picture), and there is no argument to be made against either. Each owns the screen, unencumbered by words. Who needs dialogue when you possess the ability to tell a story with a wink, a nod, a raised eyebrow and a smile?
The Artist continues at the Wilma Theatre.