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Thomson on Film: Why ‘The Artist’ Just Might Win the Oscars

The Artist is a silent film!”

… until the end, when tap dance and a few words give way to our applause. The whole thing is so damn clever and charming, it might just sneak off with Best Picture. Something will, and this film is unexpected, a crowd-pleaser, and promoted by the Weinstein brothers—a pattern that has worked before. Never mind if it’s not exactly a “best film.”

Though The Artist borrows its storyline from A Star is Born, it drops that film’s sad ending. When it shows the white-lettered sign on a hillside above Los Angeles,  it is aware enough to make it HOLLYWOODLAND, the original real-estate advertisement. Some of it was filmed on what I think is the old Selznick lot, and Selznick made the 1937 A Star is Born. It also has a dog as nifty as Rin Tin Tin—plus a man who goes to bed with the dog.

In 1927, George Valentin is a major star of the American silent screen. We see him at the premiere of his new film, standing behind the screen, and then, as the phrase “dnE ehT”  flashes in front of him, vaulting forward to lead the applause from a full house. He is a Douglas Fairbanks figure, with a trim mustache, a fabulous smile and touch-down confidence.  When he leaves the theatre for the adoring stage-door crowd he bumps into Peppy Miller.  She has a big, cute smile and eyes wide enough for his ego to float in. He looks at her, he wonders, and he smiles.  Next day, Variety has her picture on its front page as the “mystery girl” in George’s life. Her own movie career is launched – as an extra at first. But sound is coming, too, and as George refuses to do talkies, Peppy becomes a version of Clara Bow or Ginger Rogers. George slumps and Peppy bubbles.

It’s a simple story, and so predictable we guess in advance that the writer-director Michel Hazanavicius is not going to go all the way with an ending that had James Mason’s Norman Maine walking into the Pacific in the 1954 A Star is Born. Despite the off-putting combination of silence and black-and-white, this film is going to play very well with smart people who feel they deserve cheering up. The Academy will cherish its skill and affection, and the nostalgia for what used to be show business. It’s also perfect fare for the growing band of enthusiasts who pack houses at silent film festivals.

The Artist makes gestures to the style of silent films—the slightly delayed reactions, the rhythm of the titles, some rather stilted straight-on camera angles, and the notion that simplicity of character amounts to poetic depth—but without threatening modern enjoyment. There are forgivable lifts from classics like Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven.  But it’s canny enough to use sophisticated angles, too, and moody moments that rely on the silence that came only with sound films—characters could be quieter and more naturally inward once sound arrived. Even the black-and-white is up to date: The Artist was actually shot on color stock and then transferred to get a pearly gray that lets us feel we’re seeing something eighty years old.

When sound arrives, George won’t do a talking picture, yet suddenly every impact in his life makes mocking noise—when he puts a glass down on his dressing room table there is a synchronized sound effect. A leaf falls and it’s thunder. This extended joke is timed perfectly and demonstrates the director’s instinct for our responses. Like movies of the era he’s addressing, Hazanavicius tries to give us what we want—and a lot of us still love the old tricks.

It’s not clear why George rejects sound. There’s no hint that he has an inadequate voice, like the Lina Lamont character in Singin’ in the Rain. He doesn’t seem to be a purist—he just loves applause. His refusal is simply an assertion of the story that provides for his downfall.

The film is fortunate to have Jean Dujardin as Valentin (he won the acting prize at Cannes for the role). He does Fairbanks and a kind of James Mason equally well; he is quick—quicker than most silent actors in fact—and hugely likeable, especially as his pride is humbled and his soul begins to emerge. The sequence of filming where Peppy plays an extra with whom Valentin dances briefly—done in several takes, all spoiled because love is blooming—is so artfully handled it’s worthy of the Ernst Lubitsch who made sound pictures. 

As for Peppy, the actress Berenice Bejo (who is the director’s wife) is all that the character’s name promises. She is very pretty and lively; she dances and wears period clothes with a hippy flourish. But she has a knowing edge instead of an inner wonder to encourage Valentin’s self-realization. As I recall, the couple never quite kiss, and the kiss in silent pictures was a revered moment.  It may be hard for today’s actresses to find the repressive modesty and awe of “good” young women in silent cinema.  Peppy’s innocence should be overwhelmed by George’s fatalistic experience.

Still, Valentin himself requires more exploration. He is in a dull marriage as the film opens, and his wife leaves him because he isn’t willing to talk about their problems. That’s where his silence might have been a sign of emotional helplessness—which reminds me of the terrier, his companion on screen and his best chum in life. When George goes to see a movie, he takes the dog; whenever he leaves the room, the dog goes with him. The Jack Russell saves his life when the despairing actor sets fire to his collection of nitrate prints…and they sleep in the same bed. You have to wonder, will there be room for Peppy?

Hazanavicius has done a couple of adventure films before this, also with Dujardin. I haven’t seen them, but those who have say they were routine. The Artist is far from that; at its cheerful surface level it is an accomplished and witty entertainment from a fine one-off idea. Whether Hazanavicius can do more things as elegant and touching, without the gimmick of silence, remains to be seen (and heard). Meanwhile, he is to be congratulated on the grounds of pleasure alone. He may be due for much more in the way of rewards. One sour note: the film’s music (credited to Ludovic Bourse) cribs a lengthy passage from Vertigo, without acknowledgment, leaving us to realize that the rest of the score is far plainer than the haunting melodies Bernard Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder