Remember the old days, when movies were glorious, magical and mute? Neither do I. But the passing of the silent era from memory into myth is what The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ dazzling cinematic objet d’art, is all about. This is not a work of film history but rather a generous, touching and slightly daffy expression of unbridled movie love. Though its protagonist mourns the arrival of sound, The Artist itself is more interested in celebrating the range and power of a medium that can sparkle, swoon and suffer so beautifully that it doesn’t really need to have anything to say.
Strictly speaking Hazanavicius’ film is not a silent movie. There is a lot of music on the soundtrack and also a few strategic moments of onscreen noise that are both delightfully surprising and wildly illogical. The whole conceit of the picture is spun in willful disregard of the laws governing time, space and sound, an embrace of the preposterous that is perhaps more reminiscent of the spirit of early French cinema than of the old Hollywood where the action takes place.
In those days the sign up in the hills said HOLLYWOODLAND, and the screens were dominated by antic clowns, pale heroines and dashing lovers. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, the star of the popular OSS 117 series of French spy spoofs, also directed by Hazanavicius) undoubtedly belongs in that last category. With his shiny hair, radiant teeth and thin mustache — and a surname one vowel short of Valentino — George is a quintessential movie star. The public adores him, and he is far too gracious an entertainer to contradict them. A carefree narcissist, he bounces from the studio lot to the red carpet to the Beverly Hills mansion he shares with his devoted dog and less enchanted wife and co-star (Penelope Ann Miller), secure in the permanence of his glory.
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Berenice Bejo (Peppy Miller), James Cromwell (Clifton), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris), Malcolm McDowell (the Butler), Missi Pyle (Constance), Beth Grant (Peppy’s Maid), Ed Lauter (Peppy’s Butler), Joel Murray (Policeman), Ken Davitan (Pawnbroker), Uggie (the Dog) and John Goodman (Al Zimmer)
Running time: 100 minutes
Taiwan release: Today
Even viewers entirely innocent of film history — even the young, blockbuster-fed movie fans who find themselves dragged to and then transported by this minor marvel — will anticipate what happens next. George’s pride sets up a fall, first into a sweet, awkward infatuation with an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), then into professional ruin brought about by his stubborn refusal to change with the times. Abandoned by his wife and shunned by the studio boss (a wonderfully boisterous John Goodman), with only the dog and his chauffeur (James Cromwell) standing by him, the star goes into eclipse. But even when threatened with the torments of obscurity, he refuses to speak.
The rise of the talkies has almost always been chronicled on film from the perspective of sound. It could hardly have been otherwise. Singin’ in the Rain, with its exuberant music and bright colors, does not so much revisit the old splendor of cinema silence as obliterate its memory, much as Sunset Boulevard unlocks a world of ghosts and shadows among the remnants of the faded Hollywood pantheon. The Artist, as aggressively entertaining as any musical, is measured in its mourning and eclectic in its nostalgia for old movies. There is a bit of music lifted from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score, a breakfast-table montage inspired by Citizen Kane and a story line that makes The Artist, in essence, the latest (and also in a way the earliest, but surely not the last) remake of A Star Is Born.