With screens that stretch 50 feet long, 3D glasses that make blue cat-people appear to jump out into the audience, and blockbusters concerned more with merchandising than the actual movie, finding a modern film that delights its audience with pure, joyful storytelling—rather than distracts them with gimmick—is hard. “The Artist” isn’t fit for the IMAX. Its dimension count stops at two, and it lacks exclusive Happy Meal toys—it doesn’t even have sound, let alone color. But the film feels fresher and more fun than most films due to its simple ability to make you fall in love with the movies again while putting a smile on your face.
It is that simple pleasure of watching a movie, falling in love with its characters, and living in another world for 90 minutes that French director Michel Hazanavicius’ new whimsical romantic-comedy “The Artist” is dedicated to. The movie is set right in the place to which it pays tribute—the magical late 1920’s Hollywood, just before the development of “talkies,” films with sound. Charming silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career and arguably the luckiest man in the world. He seems to have everything going for him: a huge mansion, an irresistibly cute jack-terrier sidekick, and a burgeoning love affair with rising star Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). However, trouble soon arises when the studio boss alerts him that talkies will soon supplant silent films. Refusing to conform to this new medium, George soon finds himself a broke relic while his beloved Peppy sees her career soar to new, fruitful heights with sound films.
“The Artist” is not the only movie that has tried to capture the old school charm of the silent era, but it is one of the few that does so without relying on gimmicks or pretension. The film never tries to convince us that silent films are better, nor does it try to lampoon the genre’s shortcomings. Instead, it chooses to celebrate the limitations that the era’s simplicity brings as well as its charming advantages. Lovingly self-aware, the film takes much of its charm from its almost fourth-wall breaking moments—title cards can take on double meanings, leading to laughable confusion when sounds such as “bang” come to stand for unexpected actions; the barks of George’s dog tellingly fail to alert a policeman in one scene; a constant motif is tap-dancing, but without sound, the movements take on a different simpler sort of grace.
Many actors seem to get by on no more than a wink and a smile, but few can pull it off with such charismatic charm as Jean Dujardin, whose infectious smiles are themselves Oscar-worthy. Dujardin gives nuance to his pantomime, making every gesture feel natural and realistic while heartfelt and meaningful. His performance almost seems contrary to the classic performances of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, men who over-wrought their emotions. Dujuardin’s performance is immaculate, but if Oscars were given to dogs, it’s likely that his canine companion would be the real on-screen attraction. Quite literally the man’s best friend, the little pooch follows George around wherever he goes. The dog appears in all of the actor’s movies and consistently comes in handy, even going so far to save his owner’s life from time to time.
Of course, it shouldn’t take a French director to make something as celebratory of American filmmaking as “The Artist,” but only Michel Haznavicius could do it so well. Without sound, the movie becomes focused purely on the images, making every aspect of the direction, from the set details to the camera angles, readily apparent, and Haznavicius directs with aplomb, paying tribute to Keaton, Sergei Eisensten, and the like, but refuses to limit himself to some of the more outdated techniques and mainly stagnant camera work. Haznavicius makes use of a square 1:33 aspect ratio, frequent angled shots, and beautiful black and white photography to bring out the best of his actor’s performances.
It’s a constant complaint of many a movie buff that “they just don’t make them like they used to. ”Haznavicius’ film is there to happily disprove those complaints and prove that this film will always be just as wonderful as it ever was. “The Artist” isn’t some sort of whine about what we have been missing, but instead, a love-letter to the joys of film-making in general and ultimately, a message about how change can prove to be just as great as the past that we all know and love.