2011, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius.
Why would anyone make a black-and-white silent movie these days, you ask? Why not!? Particularly if it’s exceptionally good in its use of the style of a bygone era to tell a familiar story in a way that is fresh and appealing. And that’s what The Artist does so well – use a style of storytelling that is less dependent on dialogue and more about an actor’s ability to convey emotion and sentiment through facial expression and physical gesture.
George Valentin is a silent film star at the peak of his career enjoying all the trappings of Hollywood success: fancy car, big mansion, buckets of money, adoring fans, etc. He also appears to be a self-involved ham, stealing the spotlight from his co-stars (except for his faithful four-legged companion). A young lady, Peppy Miller, bumps into him, literally, at his movie’s premier and when the resulting photo is splashed across the newspapers, she decides to audition as an extra in the movies. Coincidentally she is cast in one of Valentin’s movies and reconnects with him on-set. And so begins the story of Peppy’s meteoric rise to stardom.
In the meantime, talking pictures have seized the public’s imagination and Valentin’s studio decides it must keep pace with the latest technology. Valentin will either make talking movies or get the boot. In a scene that makes magnificent use of sound effects – not dialogue – Valentin realizes that he will never be able to make the transition. The world is filled with sound but it will never hear his voice. One last desperate attempt to prove that the public would still embrace him in a silent film rather than flock to the “novelty” of talking movies ends disastrously. Valentin is left clinging to the past as he descends into pennilessness and drunkenness. But even as Miss Miller ascends the ladder of fame and fortune, she remains attracted to him.
Another impressive scene uses the metaphor of a staircase where Peppy and George cross paths as some people are climbing up, some are walking down, some faster, others slower, to illustrate how their careers are progressing. Or stalling, as the case may be. This is the genius that makes The Artist so mesmerizing – rich visual symbolism strategically employed to give depth to the actors’ performances. By its very nature a “silent movie” demands undivided attention; the viewer’s attention is rewarded from start to finish in this film.
The Artist is not about the silent movie era; most of the action takes place after the advent of talkies. It is about an iconic actor who cannot adapt to changing times, an homage to the earliest roots of filmmaking. In a broader sense it is also about an industry that must constantly adapt to new technologies, and the talented artists who might be left behind if they don’t adjust as well. The behind-the-scenes episodes depicting studio executives making business decisions taking priority over artistic sensibilities is a subtle commentary on how some things never change. But in the end, what matters most is the story being told. This one is told brilliantly.