Any filmgoer undaunted by something a little different will surely walk out of the brand-new silent film The Artist with a big, goofy grin. Though this pastiche has been crafted by film nerds and largely for them, Michel Hazanavicius' feature has an emotional generosity that speaks louder than words.
The picture's underlying sentimentality makes it well-timed as a holiday release. Opening in 1927, The Artist begins with a black-tie premiere of the latest silent film starring dashing all-purpose star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). When Valentin stumbles into a spontaneous photo op with a girl named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the ground for a relationship is paved. Plucked from obscurity and made the toast of the town, Peppy's star begins to rise in direct proportion to George's fall, precipitated by the arrival of talkies and the market crash of 1929.
Writer-director Hazanavicius mostly steers clear of comparisons to the era's epics and great screen comics (though the film evokes Chaplin's sweetness and romance), instead inhabiting the more manageable territory of melodrama. Somewhat at odds with this approach are the film's winking quality, its frequent lightness of tone, but it's part and parcel of this meticulous recreation of '20s cinema that it be wall-to-wall fun, even when Valentin finds himself in the throes of despair (adding to the amusement, the director allows himself some aural flourishes, from the musical soundtrack to a couple of Twilight Zone-esque feints).
Employing the square-ish, old-school "Academy ratio," Frenchman Hazanavicius shot on location in Los Angeles, with mostly American supporting players. John Goodman strikes just the right notes as Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer, as does James Cromwell in the role of Valentin's trusty valet; joining them are Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell, and Jack Russell terrier Uggie (Water for Elephants), among other familiar faces. But the film belongs to the luminous Bejo and the facially flexible Dujardin, the director's regular partner in the OSS 117 spy spoofs of recent years: by way of proof, the actors take the screen in a jubilant tap-dance finale.
The premise of a silent-film actor stymied by the arrival of sound has been done before (most memorably in Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and its equally immortal Sid Caesar spoof "Aggravation Boulevard"), but the charms of The Artist are more in the execution than the subject matter. Hazanavicius' work consistently impresses with its technical brilliance and focus on the more overtly poetic visual storytelling of the silent (as when feet trample George's face on a rainy pavement's discarded handbill). The acting is likewise inventive (in a nod to the silent clowns, Bejo has a bit in which she uses George's tux jacket to enact a one-woman wooing). In short, the eager-to-please The Artist thoroughly succeeds in its intentions. Add it to the long list of movies that joyously celebrate the movies.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]