“The Artist” contains a scene in which a movie is playing at the Bijou theater. Any film with such a scene will likely not be playing at one’s own local Bijou: it’s a pretty dated reference. Indeed, much about this movie is dated: an all-but silent film, shot in black and white, with a plot line almost as old as the genre itself. It is also about a moment in cinema history—the end of the 1920s—during which the message of the medium changed profoundly, with dramatic consequences for the industry and all involved with it.
The dawn of the sound era drastically affected the careers of actors, screenwriters, and directors, and it changed the economic structure of “Hollywood” for good. Whole studios went belly up by underestimating the lasting attraction of the “talkies,” and established stars who actually had to speak (as opposed to mouth) their lines encountered a whole new set of challenges. Such is the case for the artist of the title, silent movie heartthrob George Valentin played by French film star Jean Dujardin as something of a cross between Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore. At the peak of his career, he and aspiring chorus girl Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) “meet cute” outside a movie theater, then re-encounter each other when she gets a bit part in one of his films.
Of course, she becomes a star and he, the victim of shifting popular tastes sniffed out by his producer, played with nice visual bombast by John Goodman, watches his career and his marriage go down the tubes. George must even fire his faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell) and sell off all his worldly goods. Director and screenwriter Michel Hazanavicius establishes the arc of both their careers in one obvious but appealing scene on a studio staircase. More broadly, he employs many of the techniques of the silent era to underscore its end. Film buffs will enjoy transitional devices like the wipe and the iris, the superimposition to make a variety of points, and the use of montage to foreshorten time—as in the familiar shots of newspaper and magazine headlines to trace Peppy’s rise to stardom. The broad, overacted techniques of the times are also used, but not abused, not meant to be laughed at.
Another staple of the ‘20s and ‘30s, the cute, talented dog appears here in the delightful “person” of Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier who will arouse memories of Asta, the dog in the Thin Man series. Ditto the set dressing, costumes, and even the era’s editing rhythms in “The Artist.” Hazanavicius, his co-film editor Ann-Sophie Bion, and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman have masterfully and respectfully recreated the look and feel of the silent movies. The sparing use of title cards to convey necessary dialogue almost always works, though audiences used to “seeing people speak” may get a bit perplexed at times.
“The Artist” is an artifice about the artifices produced when the “Hollywoodland” sign in the hills above the studios was still intact. It takes great pains to involve us in the story and in the way such stories were told. A critical hit rated “PG,” it may yet not be the stuff that pulls folks into the multiplex. But people of a certain age, film fans generally, and maybe even the odd teenager should enjoy this witty, well-made tribute to the first few decades of film art.