An utterly delightful, charming love letter to cinema’s Golden Silent Age.
To some critics and cineastes, the words “escapism” and “art” are mutually exclusive, once and forevermore. To other critics and cineastes, there’s no higher calling or achievement than providing moviegoers, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or aesthetic dispositions, with a temporary escape from the routine or everyday world. Those in the second camp will find The Artist, a black-and-white, silent pastiche written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, a writer-director known (if he’s known stateside at all) for OSS-117: Lost in Rio, OSS 117: Cairo: Nest of Spies, Gallic spy spoofs that affectionately send up Connery-era Bond.
This past May, the Cannes Film Festival’s grand jury agreed, giving The Artist’s lead actor (and the star of Hazanavicius’ OSS-117 films), Jean Dujardin, the Best Actor Award.
Set between 1927 and 1932 in Los Angeles, The Artist centers on George Valentin (Dujardin), an A-list Golden Age movie star modeled on silent screen actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (The Thief of Baghdad, Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro). Like Fairbanks Sr. in his heyday, Valentin specializes in playing romantic, swashbuckling heroes. There’s almost nothing Valentin loves more than performing on screen or off, often with his sidekick and companion, a Jack Russell Terrier.
The constant adoration that only fans can provide feeds Valentin’s borderline narcissism. Even a strained, deteriorating marriage to Doris (Penelope Anne Miller) seems to have little effect on Valentin’s jovial, positive disposition.
The Artist shifts between Valentin’s meteoric fall from Golden Age deity to bankrupt, forgotten alcoholic due to the arrival of talkies (and Valentin’s unwillingness to appear in them) and the spectacular rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) from an extra in one of Valentin’s films (and potential, unrequited romantic interest) to one of the talkies’ first movie stars and America’s sweetheart.
Explored in microcosm through Valentin’s plunge from cinematic grace, the larger story concerns the end of the silent era, the beginning of the sound era, and the writers, directors, actors and actresses who failed to make the transition from one era to another. Hazanavicius obviously drew from Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 musical co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (who also starred) that covered the same subject, albeit not as a silent film. Hazanavicius also drew on A Star is Born, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (specifically Valentin and Doris’ breakfast scenes). Even more audaciously, Hazanavicius and his composer, Ludovic Bource, borrowed a key theme from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
While The Artist’s familiar plot, not to mention Hazanavicius’ overt borrowings, will undoubtedly strike moviegoers as derivative and, thus, unworthy of their time or energy, it shouldn’t. For all the homage Hazanavicius packs into The Artist, there’s also a refreshing absence of irony (hipster or otherwise) or cynicism (dispiriting or otherwise), just a warm, affectionate celebration of a dormant art form, skillfully executed by Hazanavicius, his cinematographers and a stellar supporting cast.
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