It turns out they do make ’em like they used to. The Artist, the final film to be released in 2011 and also the most heart-swellingly joyful one, is a silent movie, screened in black and white and projected in the old-fashioned boxy Academy ratio, with its occasional lines of dialogue printed on intertitle cards.
It falls into the long tradition of movies about the movies, and centres on an established film star and a beguiling young actress in late Twenties and early Thirties Hollywood, during the rise of the talkies. But, while the plot and setting instantly bring to mind Singin’ in the Rain, this film pulls in the opposite direction to Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s visually and sonically ravishing screen musical. Rather than being a celebration of colour and sound, it’s a eulogy for monochrome and silence; less a showcase of what film can do than a reminder of what it can be.
Like Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist begins with a premiere. We’re in a sumptuous Twenties picture palace where movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is screening his latest film, a Douglas Fairbanks-style swashbuckler, to a rapturous reception. Valentin, and by extension Dujardin, is every inch the silent-movie icon: his hair is slick, his eyebrows meticulous, his moustache a horizontal curly bracket, his jawline a perfect trapezium.
Following the premiere, George is pictured with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a gamine hoofer who wins a small role in his next film, despite irking the cigar-chomping studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman). Like their historical half-namesakes, Rudolph Valentino and Bebe Daniels, Valentin and Peppy’s overpowering charm is amplified by the silence: it’s a pleasure just looking at them.
Then the talkies arrive: an innovation that proves to be the making of Peppy but George’s undoing. Audiences can’t get enough of Peppy’s voice (although we don’t find out why, because we never hear it) and her star soars. Meanwhile, George remains silent, and he falls from favour. “If that’s the future, you can have it,” he sneers at producers after watching and listening to some test footage — and of course it is, and they do.
Director Michel Hazanavicius is well-versed in spoofery (his two previous projects with Dujardin were the OSS 117 films; colourful send-ups of mid-century spy romps), but The Artist is no pastiche. While Hazanavicius exploits all the most effective conventions of silent cinema, you can’t help but feel he does so only because they’re effective.
A scene in which George sits down to eat with his faithful Jack Russell terrier (played by Uggie, a dog whose IQ seems to be higher than that of most actors of any species) is a sparkling comic routine that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chaplin film — but it entertains because of its wit and timing, not its period accuracy.
That said, The Artist is drunk on the history of cinema and art, and culture buffs will get giddy on it. An early skit in which George watches Peppy’s legs dancing behind a partially-raised studio backdrop playfully harks back to the work of Rodin and Magritte. A later moment in which George confronts his shadow riffs on Jung. A passing-of-time montage is lifted wholesale from Citizen Kane. A late scene in which George gazes at his reflection in a tailor’s window, his own face hovering over a tuxedo-clad dummy, is pointedly backed by Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score.
Even the film’s best moment – a piece of business with a glass and a dressing room table that’s too ingenious to give away here – is indebted to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, that other great French-produced fable about Hollywood, the town where dreams can come true.
I could go on but I won’t, because it would risk making The Artist seem like hard work, and it isn’t. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s thematically similar Hugo, this film wears its cineliteracy lighter than an ostrich feather, and an audience that knows nothing about the history of film will be just as bowled over by its beauty and wit as anyone else. The film’s final sequence, which legitimately resolves all of the foregoing drama with a dance number, sums up in three minutes everything that cinema is capable of that no other art form can touch.
Drained of noise and colour, The Artist might just be moving pictures, but pictures are seldom as moving as this one.