The silent film “Wings” won the very first best picture Academy Award in 1929. Since then, no silent film has won a best picture Oscar. This year that might change.
Enter “The Artist,” a silent black-and-white film full of comedy, drama and heart. It follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film star at his peak. A debonair leading man with an insatiable comic streak, he has just released his latest film, “The Russian Affair” (not unlike the French “OSS 117” comic spy films, which “The Artist” writer/director Michel Hazanavicius directed and in which Dujardin starred). After the premier, amid the crowd of paparazzi and fans, he first bumps into the young starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). They continue to reconnect over the next four years as George falls out of favor with the rise of talking pictures while Peppy becomes Hollywoodland’s sweetheart in cinema’s golden age.
Hazanavicius imaginatively tells the simple tale of Peppy’s and George’s parallel rise and fall. In one scene, as George’s career begins to tank, he meets Peppy on a stair landing. She’s going up, he’s going down. She’s full of energy and excitement, he’s beaten. It’s one of many great visual portrayals that communicate everything other films would use dialogue to do.
But “The Artist” is more than the story of the rise and fall of actors. It’s about the period that the Art Deco typefaces, full orchestral sound and extravagant costumes recall. And it’s set squarely in the harsh realities of the time: George’s finances are hit hard by the Crash of 1929, and his once-vibrant marriage quietly deteriorates — a precursor to the angry divorces that keep entertainment magazines in business today. It’s also a tale of chase love between the aging actor and young actress set during cinema’s golden days, illustrated with montages and visuals that were cutting edge in the late 1920s. Some of the shots could have been pulled right from the 1929 experimental film “Man with a Movie Camera.”
While the story sometimes becomes melodramatic and goofy, it succeeds because of the lead actors. Dujardin’s suave, joking persona slowly fades with the fall of George’s career, and Hazanavicius’s continual use of mirrors, portraits and photos comparing the foundering George to his once-boisterous self powerfully illustrates the transformation.
Bejo’s Peppy is vibrant and vivacious. She has a flapper’s playful flair, and is the perfect picture of a beautiful starlet with an angel’s heart. Other characters like George’s driver Clifton (James Cromwell) and studio producer Al Zimmer (cigar-puffing John Goodman) color the film and represent the audience’s loyalty to George and the natural, cut-throat cycle of Hollywood. And George’s dog is a fountain of comic relief.
So it’s not their fault if you occasionally want to laugh out loud like you’re watching Charlie Chaplin. Silent film’s exaggerated acting lends itself to that — especially when it contains intertitle dialogue like “We need to talk.” That line is bound to draw a few snickers. Hazanavicius seems to accept this, and focuses on making the melodramatic and silly moments that arise from straight-forward, sparse dialogue simultaneously poignant. When George’s wife asks him, “Why won’t you talk?” it has a multitude of meanings — about their relationship and his career. George is proud and refuses to change.
Of course, it’s not just George’s fault. “The public wants fresh meat,” says Zimmer, “and the public is never wrong.” It’s a fact of life that the characters recognize. Peppy tells a reporter at a restaurant, “Out with the old, in with the new. That’s life.” From a table behind her, George rises from his dinner and says simply, “I’ve made way for you,” as he leaves.
Things end happily, but at the same time you have to wonder how long it will be before Peppy’s star fades into oblivion too, and whether her quest to help George stems from love or guilt. Either way, the story is one of the most entertaining of 2011.
Darin Miller is a movie critic in Washington, D.C.