Imaginative, inventive and challenging, this almost totally silent film fantasy about the advent of talking pictures (1927-1931) was shot in Hollywood in black-and-white by a French crew headed by writer/director Michel Hazanavicius.
Genial George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a flamboyant matinee idol, reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks. At the premiere of one of his movies at the Orpheum Theater, he accidentally encounters an ambitious, fun-loving flapper, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and is immediately intrigued by her. She gets her ‘big break’ and becomes a major star, while his allure is soon eclipsed by younger leading men who make the transition to ‘talkies.’
Lining up for Oscar nominations, Jean Dujardin oozes the same kind of Gallic charm as Maurice Chevalier, while beautiful Berenice Bejo is sensational, evoking Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson – who said it best in “Sunset Boulevard”: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
Plus there are memorable performances by John Goodman, John Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Uggy, the scene-stealing Boston terrier.
Film aficionados will recognize the familiar plot, combining the exuberant Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds romance from “Singin’ in the Rain” with the poignant Norman Maine/Esther Blodgett premise of “A Star is Born.” But Hazanavicius is neither nostalgic nor sentimental about the bygone era he’s so faithfully recreated. Instead, he focuses a contemporary viewpoint on that kind of storytelling, acting, directing and visual style, capturing its dazzling spirit and elusive glamour – even filming at Mary Pickford’s house.
Sharing in the credit for this extraordinary film are cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, who sculpts with light and shadow, creating subtly impactful perspectives; composer Ludovic Bource, whose music conveys the mood of each scene; and production designer Laurence Bennett, making every detail not only accurate and authentic but perfect.
Will it win Best Picture? That’s a long-shot, since only one silent movie, “Wings” (1927), has ever won the Oscar. But on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Artist” is an enchanting, exciting, visually eloquent 10. It’s what classic cinema was all about…and definitely one of best films of 2011.