I was concerned before I saw Michel Hazanavicius’s critically acclaimed, silent film The Artist. This is the film that’s currently being touted as an Oscar front runner and has been acclaimed by critics the world over. Whenever I see this type of acclaim, I usually end up disappointed in the actual film because hype that positive is very difficult to live up to. (Case in point: The Descendants.) However, having seen The Artist, I can now say that this is the rare film that actually is almost as good as the critics say it is.
Starting out in a highly stylized Hollywood in the 1920s, The Artist introduces us to silent film star George Valentin (played Jean Dujardin who shows the same charm and style that he used to ironic effect in the director’s previous OSS 117 films). Valentin is the biggest star in the world and he is cheerfully dismissive of the idea of “talking” film. However, once the age of the talkies begins, Valentin finds his star on the descent while his protegé, former extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), becomes a star in talking films. Defiantly, Valentin continues to make silent films but is there anybody around still willing to watch them? Obviously, the storyline of The Artist is a familiar one but the film is more about how Hazanavicius tells this story than the story itself. The Artist is ultimately a triumph in pure and exuberant style.
At first, I have to admit that I was a little bit dubious about The Artist being a silent film. It sounded rather ominously like a gimmick and I was worried that The Artist would turn out to be one of those films that I felt obligated to enjoy as opposed to actually enjoying. Having seen the film, I can say that it is indeed a gimmick but it’s that rare gimmick that actually works extremely and genuinely well. Director Hazanavicius both pays homage to the conventions of silent cinema while also contrasting them against the harsher reality of loneliness and depression.
Much like the best of the old silent actors, both Dujardin and Bejo have amazingly expressive faces and they can say as much with their eyes as they could say with dialogue. Familiar character actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Malcolm McDowell are also perfectly cast and used throughout the film’s narrative. Ultimately, however, the film is really stolen by Uggie, who plays Dujardin’s little dog and is just about the most talented canine I’ve ever seen on-screen. Seriously, he was adorable (and I say this as someone who is terrified of dogs both big and small) and he gets a chance to shine in a compelling sequence where he desperately tries to save his master from a fire. Seriously, Uggie gives such a great performance that I was surprised to discover that he wasn’t actually Andy Serkis under heavy CGI.
Technically, of course, The Artist isn’t really a silent film. It has a very rich and expressive musical score and there are two scenes in which Hazanavicius allows a few sound effects to be heard. Only towards the end of the film do we get to hear anybody speak and its truly jarring in the best way possible. If nothing else, The Artist makes us realize how much we take for granted the blaring soundtracks of most films. We’re so used to hearing things that we’ve forgotten how to listen. Luckily, The Artist is here to remind us.