Let’s begin at the end. The screen cuts black. Credits roll. Voices whisper. “That was interesting.” “It’s all in the face, not easy.” “Good, but I wouldn’t see it three times.” “I didn’t even need my hearing aid!” “I really liked that.”
These clipped critiques–the first complete sentences of audible dialogue I’ve heard in the last 100 minutes–rise from the screening dark of The Artist, the much buzzed about silent film from French director Michel Hazanavicius. As I hold the exit door open for the senior citizen couple behind me, a smiling employee says to us, “Hope you enjoyed your movie,” and two things become crystal: The crisp, clear HD-quality sounds of a living breathing voice, and that I was the youngest person watching this movie.
Like others who fall under the cultural marquee of Generation ADD, I can barely watch movies (those blasted talking kind!) on Netflix Instant without checking my Twitter feed. That I could sit, be entertained and ultimately captivated by a silent black-and-whitemovie in this over stimulated day and age feels like a quiet commentary on cinema, art and technology. Because of this, The Artist isn’t to be taken for granted–a silent film that has something to say.
The film opens on a film premiere. It’s here George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, nominated for a Golden Globe), a silent film star at the height of his late-Twenties Hollywood career, meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fan with acting aspirations of her own.
Instantly smitten by her spirited eagerness and beauty, he gives her a break as an extra in his latest picture. A connection is sparked, but Valentin’s married and it’s a calligraphy-coated “The End” to that love story. Peppy pursues her dreams, landing larger roles; Valentin shoots his next swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks-like adventure movie. Then the “talkie” arrives, an industry game changer Valentin dismisses–“I’m an artist!” he declares (via title card, naturally)–as a showy fad. He’s, of course, mistaken and we watch his film fail, marriage end and star shrink while Peppy’s shines. The remaining story centers on this conflict between his artistic integrity, her guilt for succeeding and their reversal of fame.
The story–a variation on both Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born–is nothing special, but every other element is, from Ludovic Bourse’s involving score to Hazanavicius’s clever direction.
Guillaume Schiffman’s sterling B&W cinematography is skillfully nostalgic, nearly popping off the screen with a technical electricity that doesn’t run on IMAX or 3D. Then there’s the greatest special effect of all: Dujardin’s magnetic performance. With equal parts confidence and grace, he successfully carries the entire movie on a million dollar smile. Get used to it since you’ll be seeing that same grin walk its way up to nearly every awards stage this season. Is there even an Academy Award for Best Smiling? Because it’s a pretty tight race between Jean Dujardin and Me While Watching This Movie.
Ultimately, The Artist’s greatest achievement is its ability to move beyond connect-the-dots references, past a color-by-numbers homage, and come into its own as something essential and pure. In terms of “driving the medium forward,” The Artist doesn’t do that, though I doubt that was its pursuit. Regardless, it’ll find itself taught in film textbooks for decades to come, but it begs to ask then: By reveling in techniques of an era past, what does The Artist add to cinema today? What’s…the point?
It’s not until the film’s final scene that I get my glimpse of an answer. It’s a playful dance number between Valentin and Peppy and I’m reminded of my great-grandpa who loved tap-dancing Shirley Temple movies. Due to his Alzheimer’s, switching the videotapes for him became routine. Then one afternoon, I saw he had a tear across his cheek. What moved him to that remains a mystery to me, but I wiped it from his face and put in the next movie. It’s the most intimate exchange we ever had and we didn’t have to say anything.
I don’t know why and can’t tell you how that memory sprang back to me during The Artist. It’s hard to articulate those reasons for any of the memories we have, really. But perhaps it’s this unsuspecting capacity–the sheer and magical power to even remember anything–that is the point of The Artist. In the end, it’s the simple fact you can, and that you did.