Michel Hazanavicius’ not-so-silent silent movie charms for most of its 90-minute run time, but relies on a number of spectacular scenes to hold aloft a spare, bare-bones plot. The resultant entertainment is light on narrative and heavy on artifice—and therefore basically a pastiche. Filmed entirely in Hollywood, The Artist opens its story in 1927—the year twin silent masterworks Metropolis and Napoleon, and the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, were released, and the year in which m-g-m head Louis B. Mayer conceived of the Oscars.
The picture centres on a silent-film actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who, worried that the arrival of talkies will bring about the end of his career, has his attention diverted when he bumps into a plucky ingénue (and aspiring actress), Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at the première of his new film. George’s boss at Kinograph, the studio to which he’s contracted, is on the lookout for fresh youthful talent, and Peppy fits the bill. (In a spot of perfect bit-part casting, John Goodman plays the rotund studio head.) As Peppy’s star rises, George’s falls—and, over time, they fall for each other.
The French-Belgian co-production is light on story—its laboured third act, which sees George plunged into melodramatic despair, is almost a bore—but the film’s many wonderful, delightful moments are enough to sustain interest. First: a spectacular film-within-a-film opening in which we see George’s new movie inset in the frame—a technique later reprised in a more melancholy, reflective mood. An early sequence celebrates the fluidity of silent-movie camera movements as much as it does the beautiful architecture of the unmistakable Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. (See also (500) Days of Summer; Blade Runner.)
From its use of the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio (most visibly employed in recent times by Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold) to the 22 f.p.s. frame-rate (down from 24) employed throughout—save for the films within the film, which are even slower, as befits the limitations of the time—the film’s many period-faithful technical qualities are to be applauded. Elsewhere, iris wipes and other now-uncommon scene transitions (including what might be called a ‘windscreen’ wipe), as well as the art-deco typefaces used on the intertitles and credits are wonderful to behold on the big screen.
The film is not wholly ‘silent’: there are two key sequences which make use of Foley and sync sound respectively. The former, a moderately gimmicky affair, is a dream (or nightmare?) scene which, while it cleverly incorporates montage, gets by almost solely on its use of sound. The latter, at the tail end of the film’s big song-and-dance-without-the-song grand finalé—all jazz-hands and goofy expressions—needlessly exposes Dujardin’s French accent, and gives Goodman one of the film’s few lines of dialogue. (Rose Murphy’s version of “Pennies from Heaven,” which underscores a third-act montage, is the film’s other major use of non-diegetic, non-orchestral sound.)
Hazanavicius’ regular composer Ludovic Bource’s often jazzy, wide-ranging score is alternately thrilling, moody, romantic and warmly comedic, even as it relies heavily on extant film scores—which makes its climactic third-act interpolation of Bernard Herrmann’s “Scène d’amour” cue from his score to Vertigo all the more glaring. Hazanavicius’ et al.’s use of the piece is, above all, cheap. Bource’s music was perfectly fine; there was no need to pillage from film-music history in order to onerously sentimentalise what could have been a perfectly fine scene accompanied by a (semi-)original composition. As if in some kind of karmic retribution, Herrmann’s cue isn’t even long enough to underscore the whole scene: it runs out before the action in the sequence is complete, leaving its characters dangling with no underscore, unnecessarily playing out the remaining minutes in silence.
The Artist is, in the end, more of a pastiche (its cribbing from silent-film techniques and use of Foley and sync-sound techniques extend beyond mere homage) than a genuine, heartfelt love-letter to silent cinema. The film is all surface, no depth—charming, but artificial: not immersive or emotionally involving.
The Artist is in cinemas today.