Riotous laughs, breathless thrills and weeping pathos — film managed all that when the movies were silent, the movies were black and white, and the movies were shot on actual celluloid.
“The Artist” is a light, sweet, pretty much irony-free tribute to the silent era, an homage to the era when pantomime reached its cinematic zenith — that age Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, remembered with a zeal touching on mania in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“We had FACES then!”
Like “Hugo,” it’s a movie-lover’s movie, a slice of early cinema history. But where that film had an American filmmaker (Martin Scorsese) briefly touching on the cinema’s origins in France, “The Artist” has French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius immersing himself and us in a sublime, serio-comic sampler of all that the silent cinema was, way back when.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a matinee idol whose light comedies, romances and adventure pics have made him the toast of Hollywood. And he knows it. What a ham! His leading lady (Missi Pyle, hilarious) can’t stand him and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) whiles away the silent hours in their mansion, doodling warts and missing teeth onto his many magazine cover photographs.
Enter the plucky young interloper.
“The name’s Miller! Peppy Miller!” Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) is a fan who stumbles into George at a premiere and who works her way into the business, up from extra to leading lady in a few short years.
In the best “A Star is Born” and “Singing in the Rain” tradition, we watch Peppy’s rise, just as the talkies were ushering silent movies out the door, and George’s decline. A loveless marriage, a refusal to dive into talking pictures that ruins his career (John Goodman is the Louis B. Mayer-styled mogul at Kinescope Studios), booze, bankruptcy.
At least he’s got his adorable Jack Russell terrier at his side!
Hazanavicius lets his French leads get across the chemistry, the flirtation and romance in a world without words. A wonderful “nightmare” sequence has Valentin hear sound effects, chatter from others, but not his own voice. Other bits have Valentin dance off with Peppy, without seeing her face — she’s hidden behind a piece of scenery — and the dog melodramatically go for help when fire threatens his master.
Film buffs will see John Gilbert in the Valentin character, a silent superstar ruined by the talkies, and Clara Bowe and assorted other “It” girls in the beauty-marked Peppy.
Oscar nominated and an Oscar favorite for best picture and best director, “The Artist” drags, as any film telling its story with its mouth and ears tied behind its back can be expected to. But it’s a lovely bit of froth, the meringue on a cinema season that is both high-minded and awards oriented, even as it reaches for light holiday entertainments.
Yes, they had “faces, then.” And as “The Artist” vividly demonstrates, those were enough to tell stories, incite laughter and bring us to tears.
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Anne Miller, James Cromwell, John Goodman, Missi Pyle
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Running time: 1:40
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture