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The Artist: Mostly mute, it speaks volumes about silent film

A scene from "The Artist"

4 out of 4 stars


My, The Artist is delightful, ingenious, funny, poignant and, in its own small way, profound. Put Oscar on high alert but, first, this preface.

We all know the old tale about the silent film star who, unable to make the transition to talkies, falls into boozy decline and eventual obscurity – technology claiming another inflexible victim. Set in such a distant past, it used to seem a quaint tale, more amusing than cautionary.

But today's high-tech world has given that old saw some fresh teeth. Now, lots of once-venerable institutions, and the folks who inhabit them, are feeling the pain of that haplessly silent actor, faced with rapidly evolving technology that liberates and enslaves but, either way, issues a non-negotiable demand: Learn and adapt or fade into irrelevance and die.

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On the bright surface of things, The Artist seems like just a clever gimmick – beautifully wrought and with dollops of charm, yet still a gimmick. You see, it dusts off the yarn about the silent-film victim and retells his story – but does so silently, in black and white. Although there's abundant music and the occasional intertitle, nary a word of dialogue is spoken. Actually, I lie. The vow of silence is broken twice, each time for a brief second and to pointed effect, but all the rest is a pure throwback.

The result, then, is a silent film that dramatizes, wonderfully, the inevitable demise of silent film – that is, a picture that uses old technology to dazzling effect to illustrate the insistent conquest of a new technology. It's like encountering a Proustian tome about Twitter. Suddenly, the charming gimmick seems to cut more deeply and closer to home.

That's not to deny the charm. Shooting on location in Hollywood, French director Michel Hazanavicius opens with a note of heightened artifice: Back in the twenties, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is watching the premiere of his latest silent hit. The movie is playing on a big screen before an audience in a classic theatre, as he and his cast wait in the wings to make their appearance.

With his pencil mustache, dazzling smile and roving eye, Valentin is riding high – he's John Gilbert before the fall. Early on, that eye roams in the direction of the aptly named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an energetic chorus girl whose introduction comes courtesy of a lovely sight gag. The lens shows her dancing but only from the waist down – yes, her legs do all the talking.

Soon, she has a small part with Valentin in his next picture, and we see them shooting the scene in multiple takes while cracking each other up. We also see something far more interesting. Both Dujardin and Bejo are acting one way, mugging theatrically, for the film within a film, and in quite another fashion, perfectly naturally, when the camera stops. The difference is vast, and yet entirely achieved without the benefit of words – it's a fascinating lesson in mute performance.

Their paths part, and 1929 arrives along with the new talkie technology. They meet again by chance on the staircase at the studio when, of course, she's going up the steps and he's coming down. That nice little visual touch paves the way for the obvious. A star is born in Peppy, while Valentin is poised to flame out, although not before losing his personal fortune in a desperate attempt to make a "great silent movie." By then, his marriage is over (in an amusing bit of irony, a title card has his wife complaining, "We have to talk"), his mansion is gone, his possessions are auctioned off, and he's hitting the bottle hard. Only a trio of loyalists remain – faithful butler Clifton (James Cromwell), best friend the Jack Russell terrier, and Peppy, who intercedes with quiet discretion.

Still, the slope just gets more slippery. Clearly, all this is unabashed melodrama, flecked with comedy, which is precisely the genre that predominated in the silent era (and beyond with Chaplin). Within that genre, Hazanavicius reminds us how easily the narrative can be advanced strictly with the camera, even as the principals, especially Dujardin, prove again how much nuanced emotion can be expressed by the human face in close-up.

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Don't get me wrong. This movie isn't arguing (as some sentimentalists do) that the advent of talk was a step backward in the history of cinema. Instead, The Artist is simply insisting, and offering itself as immaculate proof, that silence has its own merits and its own eloquence. So don't be daunted – revel in the homage to the past and heed its tiny warning in the present. Then, as now, a new technology emerges as irresistible and dynamic, reshaping the medium completely. But, then as now, the old ways haven't outlived their usefulness – they just seemed to for a while.

The Artist

  • Directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius
  • Starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo
  • Classification: PG
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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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