You've got to hand it to the Hollywood establishment for recognizing The Artist with 10 Oscar nominations last week. Sure, members of the Academy are suckers for any film that pays loving tribute to early days of Tinseltown, which The Artist certainly does. But a silent movie, shot in black and white, written and directed by an actual Frenchman, from France? Mon Dieu!
As it turns out, The Artist is nearly impossible to resist — for Oscar voters and just about everyone else, but especially for those of us who probably see too many cookie-cutter Hollywood movies. Free from irony or parody, and driven by a simple, engaging story told in an utterly original way, The Artist has charm to burn. It takes only a few minutes, and no effort at all, to get fully acclimated to the film's peculiar world, which is almost completely free of spoken dialogue. It will be fascinating to see if mainstream audiences can get past the silent-movie thing and find their way to The Artist as positive word-of-mouth spreads.
It wasn't easy to get a silent movie made. Director Michel Hazanavicius tried for a decade and only acquired funding after his OSS 117 spy-parody movies hit big in France. But the delays bought him time to address the challenges of the form and to develop visual storytelling techniques while writing the movie to suit. He watched hundreds of early silent films from all over the world to figure out what would work today, going so far as to immerse himself in the films' original music. Yet he manages to make The Artist seem effortless, as breezy and lighthearted as a summer day at the beach, even in the film's darker moments.
Set in the late 1920s and early '30s during Hollywood's transition from silent movies to "talkies," The Artist tracks the decline of fictional silent-era film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and the ascent of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an ingenue who's perfect for the new era of sound. Old-fashioned full-screen title cards are used intermittently for dialogue, but the characters speak most eloquently through gesture, body language and facial expression.
That requires a cast with a real gift for nonverbal communication, and Dujardin and Bejo (who's married to director Hazanavicius) fit the bill. Dujardin wisely found inspiration in Douglas Fairbanks, the silent era's original swashbuckler, and he exudes the easy confidence of Clark Gable in his prime. Peppy's journey from gushing fan to veteran actress is clearly told just in the ways Bejo carries herself as the story moves along. And who better than John Goodman to play the studio boss? Goodman could do silent Shakespeare and still get his points across.
As unique as the movie is, the real secret to The Artist's success is its complete lack of sentimentality. It's wistful and romantic but makes us believe it all. And it values grace and beauty above all else. Who needs words for that? — KEN KORMAN