Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a five-time Oscar winner for Best Picture (only the second ever silent movie to do so), Best Director, Best Score, Best Costume and Best Actor is a tasty little homage to silent movies, 1920s Hollywood, Douglas Fairbank-style swashbuckle, faithful chauffeurs and dogs, romantic comedies and plenty else. Its success at the Academy Awards seemed improbable–a silent movie circa 2011-2012?–till one realizes that Hollywood loves being loved. Whatever the reason, these awards do not seem to have been miscarriages of justice.
The Artist‘s storyline is relatively uncomplicated. George Valentin (the French actor Jean Dujardin), a dashing Hollywood star with a mustache and a smile to kill for, reigns supreme on the silver screen, the darling of moviegoers even if not that of his leading ladies, who might find his showboating excessive. Silent movies are his domain; he loves nothing more than the chance to show off his wares in them. Then, a chance encounter with a hopeful starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) leads the two to flirtation; Valentin might have an outsized ego but he has plenty of affection and little arrogance. But the romance that might have lain in store for the two is interrupted by the march of events: the talkies are coming to Hollywood, eagerly awaited by producers, studio executives, and distributors. As an auteur of the silent, Valentin disdains them and makes his feelings plain; as an aspirant hopeful of riding the next wave to stardom, Miller embraces them. Their paths and fortunes diverge: Valentin heads for Skid Row, Miller for Beverly Hills. But redemption is still possible, and after a few twists and turns, we have a happy ending. Roughly.
The Artist works because it is, how you say?, fun. Among other things, it has comedy, heartbreak, tap-dancing, the aforementioned clever dog, and of course, a pair of wonderful actors in Dujardin and Bejo. (I knew little about the movie before I sat down for a viewing and almost immediately on seeing Dujardin act, realized I was in the presence of a master of the jocular.) It lets us revisit, briefly, the charm of the silent, as we recognize, once again with amazement, the storytelling possible with such a seemingly limited palette. It reminds us of masterpieces were made before sound made it to cinema; it shows how laughter could be evoked by visible action with nary a single spoken word. It shows us how a great deal can be said by visible expression and action, by bodily gesture and movement. It takes us back to a time when the technical limitations and constraints of the cinematic medium were mastered by the moviemakers of the time, thus letting us once again acknowledge their craft and skill. It does not moralize about progress; indeed, its ending suggests a reconciliation with the onward march of time and technique.
Movies about movies can be bores. The best ones remind us why we fell in love with them in the first place. The Artist manages to do that in style.