It's as simple as black and white
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec 23, 2011
Capping off a year of movies dedicated to high-style nostalgia, "The Artist" arrives like the last, lightest profiterole on the croquembouche.
A delectable homage to the silent movies of the 1920s, Michel Hazanavicius's romantic comedy plays like a sweet, airy confection, satisfying the audience's sweet tooth with gentle wit, a lavish production and winning performances.
The fact that "The Artist" is itself a silent movie - in black-and-white, no less - shouldn't deter viewers from giving it a whirl. They'll discover the sublime joy to be had simply in letting images and music dance across the screen in an infectiously spirited tableau that's as involving as it is intoxicating.
"The Artist" opens in 1927, when the dapper Errol Flynn-esque film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) rules Hollywoodland as its reigning star, his million-dollar grin coming as easily as the waves of applause that predictably greet every one of his new pictures. When George crosses paths with an eager newcomer named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), he's cast in the role of mentor (and maybe more); but when talking pictures become the order of the day, she quickly begins an ascent up stardom's ladder, while George's fortunes begin their inevitable slide.
If you're picking up echoes of "A Star is Born," "Singin' in the Rain" and touches of "Sunset Boulevard," you're exactly where Hazanavicius wants you to best enjoy "The Artist," which plays like a loving tutorial in cinema's ur-texts. (George owns a terrier reminiscent of "The Thin Man's" Asta.)
But rather than settle for quoting other, better movies, "The Artist" engages in some clever writing and stagecraft all its own, such as a lovely courtship scene between two actors that transpires over a series of takes, or some witty bits of business involving Peppy seductively slipping her arm into an empty jacket, or a pair of dancing legs behind a screen.
Still, even the most arresting visual stunts would amount to little more than pastiche were it not for Dujardin and Bejo, who infuse their characters with palpable longing and regret (Dujardin is particularly poignant as a once-cocksure man facing the abyss of early obsolescence).
With equally able supporting performances from John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller, "The Artist" hews faithfully to the classics it so dazzlingly celebrates, offering a cautionary parable regarding the wages of fame but wrapping it in velvety aesthetic values, crisp storytelling and fabulous dance numbers. (Composer Ludovic Bource deserves special mention for a musical score that ranges from lush orchestrations to the simplest, most touching piano melodies.)
At a time when movies nearly always overreach, either in technological sophistication or philosophical pseudo-depth, "The Artist" comes as a particularly refreshing balm: It's a film that simply offers viewers an elegant escape from the toils and worries of the real world, plunging them into an alternate universe where glamour, romance and indefatigable optimism rule the day. The fact that that world happens outside the aural assault of modern life makes "The Artist" not just a diverting novelty, but a psychic necessity.
"The Artist" may be silent, but it speaks volumes.
Contains a disturbing image and a crude gesture.