Reviewed by Stephen Himes
Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is as charming as you’ve heard, a silent film about a silent movie star that precisely captures the look, rhythms, and even the melodrama of the silent era. Hazanavicius creates a meticulous ode to the silent era—as if a French Tarantino made an entire meta-movie about his love for Rudolph Valentino.
Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin is the charismatic star who refuses to adapt; Berenice Bejo is Peppy Miller, the from-nowhere talent who gets her big break from Valentin during his hey-day. Their story is wholly predictable, which, to be fair, is also one of the conventions of the silent era melodrama. The point is the execution: the stirring score, expressive acting, and the occasional surprise, like Valentin’s nightmare that he’s trapped in a movie where everyone can talk but him.
Still—HUGE SPOILER ALERT!—there’s a moment at the very end that complicates the film. George’s fall from stardom involves a divorce, an auction, and other rock-bottom conventions. You wonder, had Hollywood not invented The Comeback yet? Really, what is moviestardom if not reinvention? Why not at least try some dialogue before putting a pistol in your mouth?
Finally, in the film’s final scene, George and Peppy emerge together in dance number, an homage to “Singin’ in the Rain.” For the only time, we hear George’s voice: He speaks with a very pronounced French accent. Sure, the actor himself is French, and “The Artist” is an unmistakably French enterprise. But in the context of the film, now we understand why George didn’t just try talkies. Perhaps this speaks to some sort of general prejudice of the time, American Francophilia, or if read deeply, American isolationism during the pre-war era that gave rise to Hitler. In the least, though, this tiny moment brilliantly transforms the film’s only questionable element into something more complex and interesting. This elevates an artful entertainment into a work of art.