Change is a constant force in our lives. Technologies change. Tastes change. One minute, people appreciate your talent, the next, you're outdated, an instant anachronism. But that doesn't mean you don't have talent anymore. This is the theme of The Artist, a film by French director Michel Hazanavicius that is itself an anachronism in this day and age. It's a black and white silent film. And not only is it a black and white silent film, it's deliberately filmed in the style of 1920s-1930s films, complete with the camera shots, cinematography, lighting, and even aspect ratio that you'd expect from that era. The acting, as well, is also deliberately anachronistic. It's melodramatic...the drama doesn't come from the dialogue, but from facial expressions, body language and the direction. Many of the supporting roles are played by well-known character actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell. John Goodman as the studio head, in particular, commands the screen in every scene he's in. The music is itself an actor in this film, driving the narrative.
The film is about George Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, who is one of the biggest actors of the silent film era. After coming out of the premiere of his latest film, he accidentally bumps into aspiring actress and dancer Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo. Ever the charmer, he gives her a kiss and the photo of it ends up on the front page of Variety. Of course, his wife isn't too happy about that. He soon meets Peppy again as she tries out for a role as an extra in his next film. He, of course, can't keep himself away from her, and he helps jump-start her way to stardom. A few years later, however, talking pictures make silent films instantly antiquated. Peppy finds herself perfectly suited for talkies, which makes her a superstar, but George cannot adjust. He self-finances and directs a silent film of his own, in an effort to prove that silent films can still be a viable artform, but it's a flop next to Peppy's talky film. This, combined with the stock market crash of 1929 puts him out of a job. But Peppy cannot ignore the man who made her a star, even as he slides into alcoholism and depression.
This film is a joy. It has already won a multitude of international film awards and is sure to win more. Jean Dujardin has a huge commanding screen presence; his charisma almost literally oozes from the screen. He looks and acts as if he actually was a major movie star of the 1920s and 30s, complete with pencil-thin mustache. Bérénice Bejo is the very definition of "spunky", with enough energy and enthusiasm to power a city. They both have smiles that you can't help but to smile back. And the dog, Uggie, steals the show and already has a growing following. He is that great. One can easily tell that this movie was made with love. And the movie itself is a love letter, not only to silent movies, but to movies altogether.
The film both embraces and subverts its identity. It's a silent film, and it's a silent film about silent films being ousted by talkies. But it's not always silent. There are a few important scenes where sound is inserted to great dramatic effect. Alongside the authentically earnest period acting, one scene uses a particular finger-based expression that one would surely never find in any movie from that period. Seamless effects are used to create a Hollywoodland of yesteryear. The black and white even doesn't stay completely black and white, sometimes taking on a sepia tone and sometimes taking on a more bluish tone.
The movie itself can be seen as a statement, but it's not an in-your-face statement. We live in a time of fast-paced change, sometimes too fast. I am reminded of a recent commercial, where everything is shrugged off as "so 12 seconds ago". This film's message is that, though change should be accepted, talent shouldn't be shrugged off, even if that specific talent isn't currently in fashion. Nor should we be burdened by change, but adapt and move on. And in a day and age where most movies are loud, colorful and three-dimensional, a simple and charming black and white silent film is a very delightful change, if but for an evening.
Overall, this is a great film that I think most will really enjoy. Look past the fact that this is a mostly silent, black and white film and you’ll find a charming, poignant and often very funny look at a bygone era of Hollywood history.