It’s the late 1920s and the hugely-popular silent movie star George Valentin (Dujardin) is celebrating another hit when he meets up-and-coming starlet Peppy Miller (Bejo). After helping her get into the industry though, George watches Peppy’s rising fame eclipse his own as talking pictures arrive and silent movies become a thing of the past. Unwilling and unable to change, George’s career quickly fades while Peppy becomes the biggest star in town…
Even though The Artist arrived with an overwhelming tidal-wave of gushing critical praise, it was always going to be a tough-sell trying to convince the masses to see it. After all, while film-fans and culture-buffs were excited about the arrival of something this diverse and different, mainstream audiences weren’t about to flock to a French-made, black-and-white silent movie with no dialogue. They just weren’t. In a day and age where the box-office is ruled by CGI and 3D, a monochromatic, arty-flavoured throwback to the ’20s was hardly the most commercial proposition.
But yet, whilst those of you with unflinchingly-mainstream tastes just won’t be able to get on board, The Artist isn’t an arthouse-lovers-only experience. Though tipped for all sorts of awards (a few of which it will certainly win), director Michel Hazanavicius never made it with Oscars in mind, instead hoping to charm the pants off us. Which he does. Much more entertaining than you might be expecting, it’s a lovely, enchanting and irrepressibly-likeable picture which will sweep you up and away with it. Predictably, many will write it off while others won’t be able to accept the 1920′s style (Hazanavicius even shot in the old 4:3 screen-aspect ratio), but it really is as winning and charming as word-of-mouth has repeatedly suggested.
Although it’s simply impossible to escape the fact that The Artist is a black and white movie with dialogue cards instead of actors talking and a continuous score in place of sound, there’s more to it than that. Whilst sweet, romantic and affecting, the story moves to some surprisingly dark places as George’s career sinks (symbolised perfectly when he’s pulled under by quick-sand in his self-financed dud) and has something to say about the fickle nature of stardom and public tastes. It’s full of great subtle moments (like a broke, washed-up George seeing his reflection in a tailor’s window and positioning his head so it looks like he’s wearing a tuxedo again), there’s a few superb sequences (like the wonderful surprise of a scene which involves a room of ‘noise’) and the ending will leave you with a big grin on your face.
What really makes it all work though is a majestic central performance from French actor Jean Dujardin. Whether unashamedly mugging to cheering crowds or sitting alone and re-living his past glories as a boozed-up has-been (you really feel his pain when replaced by the younger talent), he’s note-perfect throughout and has a smile which is worth an Oscar in itself. When you see the side of Dujardin’s mouth start to curl upwards, you can almost feel the room light up. Argentinian-born actress Berenice Bejo is superb opposite him and there’s also great support from the likes of John Goodman and James Cromwell, but the best supporting performance comes from Uggie the dog as George’s loyal Jack Russell terrier. If there’s an Oscar for Most Adorable Canine, he’s a shoe-in.
Some won’t be able to see past the fact that it’s a French-made, black and white silent movie, but The Artist isn’t only for arthouse fans. Surprisingly enjoyable and utterly charming, it’ll work its magic on you – if you let it.