Sometimes, as the old saying goes, silence can speak volumes. A parent’s scornful furrowing of their eyebrows can let their child know they are in trouble; a smile across the face of someone you haven’t seen in a while can let you know they’re happy to once again see you; a friend’s eyes swollen red from tears can trigger within you the knowledge that something has upset them; a lover’s tender embrace can make you feel the level of their affection. Even people of different cultural backgrounds and who speak different languages can understand these silent cues. These means of expression, while simplistic, are the bedrock of universal communication between people throughout the known world and are the earliest ways in which people told stories cinematically. The Artist is a love letter to that bygone era, when the language of Hollywood was spoken with the body and the greatest form of expression was facial.
The Artist is the story of George Valentin (Jean Dejardin), a silent film actor at the top of his craft in 1927. All his films are hits and all his premieres are attended by legions of adoring fans, one of which is aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). After the premiere of his latest film, Peppy, who is at the front of the crowd as George walks the carpet, bumps into him, which George takes very lightly, playfully posing with Peppy for the papparazi cameras. When Peppy’s picture ends up on the cover of Variety it gets everyone in Tinseltown asking who she is. This aspect, along with a little help from George, helps her get her foot in the door at the studio that employs George, Kinograph Studios. Two years later the studio head, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), decides to do away with silent films in favor of the wave of the future, talkies. This does not sit well with George who sees talkies as little more than a passing fad. When this doesn’t end up being the case, though, it sends George’s career and personal life for a total loop.
Going into the film I was a little skeptical that the “silent film” aspect was little more than a gimmick to try and make an otherwise only okay film stand out from the pack. While that is on display from time to time in this, it is never to the point of being overt. This film is treated with such care to make sure that the story is never trumped by the form in which it is told. Watching this film conjures up mental images of silent film juggernauts such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, not only based on memories of their performances in similar pictures, but also displaying at least a little of what they must have felt when they saw the silent era die. Despite the spattering of serious subject matter displayed on the screen, the lack of spoken dialogue and the score help to always provide at least an undertone of lightheartedness. While that may not be the selling point of this picture, it is what will keep people coming back to watch it again and again.
I don’t think much needs to be said about the performances, which were stellar all around (I believe most of the main players have either won or been nominated for multiple acting honors), or the directing, which, again, was very well done, but I feel the need to point out the work of a relatively unsung group of people in the art department. The sets in this film are fantastic, bringing the look of old Hollywood to life and giving the film as a whole a very vibrant feel. Moreover, given the lack of dialogue, the sets themselves help tell the story. Whether through something as subtle as a lighting change altering George’s shadow, or something as blatant as a prescient sign hanging in the background, Production Designer Laurence Bennett, Art Director Gregory S. Hooper and everyone in the art department deserve applause for helping to bolster the visual appeal of this film.
The Artist has garnered a lot of (much deserved) critical acclaim and while it may not be my favorite film, it is nice to see such kudos heaped on a film that isn’t so overly dramatic or melancholic. Watch The Artist on Putlocker.