Hazanavicius, who’s famous in France for a series of detective comedies, has fashioned a lavish, loving valentine to early Hollywood with “The Artist,” which stars his frequent leading man Jean Dujardin as a silent-movie star named, appropriately enough, George Valentin.
As “The Artist” opens, George attends the soignee premiere of his new thriller “A Russian Affair,” in which the pencil-mustached actor engages in all manner of Errol Flynn-worthy derring-do, assisted by his faithful (and preternaturally talented) Jack Russell terrier. Ingratiating, vain and an incorrigible ham, George has Hollywood — or “Hollywoodland” as it was known then — in the palm of his soft, well-manicured hand, at least until the talkies arrive.
It turns out George isn’t well-suited for sound pictures, not least because of his mugging, archaically theatrical acting style. But the talkies are perfectly suited to a vivacious ingenue named Peppy Miller (played by Hazanavicius’s radiant wife, Berenice Bejo), who crosses paths with George, first as a fan, then as an extra on the set of his new movie, “A German Affair.”
In 1929, just as Wall Street crashes, George’s studio, Kinograph, stops making silent movies. It’s fitting that the next time he meets Peppy, on Kinograph’s hivelike main stairway, she’s on her way up and he’s on his way down.
Hazanavicius stages that scene, like so many others in “The Artist,” with deftness, ingenuity and sensitivity, pulling back the camera to take in the meticulously choreographed screen action, then pushing in to capture the expressiveness of his terrific acting ensemble, which includes John Goodman as Kinograph’s blustery chief, James Cromwell as George’s faithful chauffeur and Penelope Ann Miller as the hopelessly bored Mrs. Valentin. To paraphrase Norma Desmond speaking of the silent era in “Sunset Boulevard” — one of the myriad movies to which “The Artist” pays affectionate homage — actors had faces then. As Dujardin and Bejo prove in their funny, subtle, affecting performances, they still do.