Director Michel Hazanavicius and his star Jean Dujardin are well known in France for their affectionate James Bond spoofs, the OSS 117 films, and now they hop across the pond to 1920s California for a loving re-creation of a Hollywood (or Hollywoodland, as the sign still has it) on the verge of sound. Fittingly, their film is shot in the same silent and monochrome style as the movies in which its tragic romantic hero, George Valentin (Dujardin), employs a canny arched eyebrow or breaks out into a rip-roaring tap-dancing routine to woo his loving audiences.
It’s 1927, Valentin is a star, but, oh no, is that the sound of, well, sound on the horizon? Valentin is an insufferable ham; he laps up the adoration at his latest premiere, giving little attention to his co-stars and hogging the stage with his trusty little performing dog (a constant presence in the film). His home life is shaky, too, and his wife isn’t impressed when he’s photographed on the cover of Variety outside the premiere with an unknown woman. She’s the young and beautiful Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who is soon an extra on George’s next picture, The German Affair, and, just as they seem to be falling for each other, the sound age begins and Kinograph Studios sack Valentin and contract Miller to be their biggest star. George’s real downfall – he loses his house, his wife and even his loyal servant (James Cromwell) – begins when Tears of Love, his first picture as a producer-director-star bombs on the same day that Miller’s big debut becomes a hit. Will Valentin pick himself up, or is he destined to become a relic of the silent era and, cruelty of cruelties, a victim of the Wall Street Crash to boot?
The real pleasure of The Artist is that Hazanavicius employs all the tricks and tics of silent cinema with canny care and not just coldly but with all the emotional and musical rhythm of the best of those films (the score is very effective). It’s a film about cinema that also has a heart: it moves between funny and sad and turns the dawn of the sound age into a personal tragedy, expressed as silent melodrama. Its nostalgia is instructive: a scene of Miller and Valentin tap dancing on either side of a screen reminds us of how visually inventive sound films could be and a scene of Valentin talking to a policeman that doesn’t have title cards reminds us that good silent films also demanded imagination and thought from the audience. It’s both a relic and a gentle call to arms to modern cinema.
Feature-length, knowing recreations of past genres can often be tiresome after the initial novelty has worn off, and yet The Artist manages to keep up the same level of charm as its lead actor throughout. Best of all, the film never feels like a parody or a good idea that becomes laborious in the execution. It’s lovingly corny, great fun, good-looking and respectful. Silence being silence, you wouldn’t know it’s essentially a French enterprise – especially with John Goodman playing a big-shot producer – although Hazanavicius offers a witty nod to the film’s provenance in its final scene, reminding us of the fact that many of the great silent Hollywood films were made by Europeans who crossed the Atlantic. Dave Calhoun