Starring Jean Dujardin & Bèrènice Bejo
Directed by Michael Hazanavicius
PG-13, 100 min.
A silent black-and-white movie with subtitles, featuring two French stars far off the American movie map—not exactly the stuff that typically plays big down at the Mainstreet USA multiplex.
But “The Artist” is making American audiences cheer—and creating quite a buzz as the Feb. 26 Academy Awards approach.
A clever, whimsical, touching and spirit-lifting romantic saga that’s both a paean to the movies and a retro-glow throwback to the way films were made nearly a century ago, it’s nominated for 10 Oscars.
The “artist” of the title is a dashing superstar actor, the fictional George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), at the top of his swashbuckling, silent-movie game in the late 1920s just as movie studios are making the transition to sound. A couple of chance encounters with an aspiring young actress, the unflappably upbeat Peppi Miller (Bèrènice Bejo), sparks their mutual attraction.
But George is married, and fate puts them on two divergent paths. As Peppi becomes a “talkies” sensation, George stubbornly refuses to abandon the format that has made him famous. In just a few years, she’s become Tinseltown’s new “It” girl, the face and voice of a new era, and he’s a Hollywood has-been, a sad-sack shadow of a silent-movie yesteryear.
An earlier scene on a staircase sets the stage for what’s about to happen. She’s all smiles and sunshine, headed up; he’s frowning under a dark cloud, going down.
How this captivating knot works itself out is but one of the movie’s many charms. The two leads, Dujardin and Bejo light up the screen with charisma. It’s easy to believe them as silver-screen idols from a bygone era.
The story, of a couple obviously meant for each other but held apart by the wide rift of their circumstances, is universal. It doesn’t need many words, in any language. And the absence of spoken dialogue (until the very end) stages the movie in a purely visual way that makes every moment even more compelling.
Some familiar American faces are sprinkled in, including John Goodman as a cigar-chomping studio mogul. James Cromwell plays George’s loyal longtime valet. Penelope Ann Miller is George’s unhappy wife, sinking in a loveless marriage that’s become like the quicksand in a scene from George’s latest movie.
And for dog fanciers, George’s faithful Jack Russell Terrier, his companion both onscreen and off, steals scenes as well as hearts.
There are certainly flashier movies, noisier movies, movies with brighter colors and bigger stars. But very few of them sparkle and shine like this little black-and-white, nonverbal marvel, which marches along majestically to its musical soundtrack but little other sound of any kind. It’s a real jewel. In the case of “The Artist,” silence really is golden.