The Artist: written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius: starring Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Berenice Bejo (Peppy Miller), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), and James Cromwell (Clifton) (2011): Hollywood tends to like its metanarratives peppy and upbeat when it’s going to reward them with Oscars, and on the surface last year’s Best Picture winner is just that. There’s an underlying thread of despair, though, reminiscent of the sort of thing one sometimes found in Charlie Chaplin movies. Thankfully, the abyss is kept at bay with slapstick, dancing, and some awfully good scenes involving a dog.
This mostly silent movie (there’s a score and sound effects and voices at key moments), shot in colour but presented entirely in period-appropriate black and white (and in a period-appropriate 1:1.33 aspect ratio) is a delight about the last days of silent motion pictures and the first few years of sound in Hollywood. Box-office king George Valentin, loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., finds himself a relic of the past. The ingenue he discovered, Peppy White, finds herself becoming a big star.
The plot bears some similarity to the oft-filmed chestnut A Star is Born. Shot and staged like a late-silent-era movie, we get a certain amount of approriate mugging, a heroic dog with several killer scenes (one in which he fetches a police officer is a lovely bit of business worthy of a Chaplin or a Keaton), and a host of actors who look pretty much absolutely right for the time period and the way films looked back then. The French stars look great, while the Hollywood supporting actors — most notably John Goodman and James Cromwell — have the sort of faces that work perfectly in this milieu.
While there are also parallels between the plot of The Artist and Singing in the Rain, the number of allusions and references is broader than that. One will see shades of some of F.W. Murnau’s films, Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, City Lights, a musical quote from Vertigo, and a number of Guy Maddin films that play in the same sandbox. But you don’t need a background in film to enjoy these references and salutes: The Artist is a delight on its own, and a delight from beginning to end. Highly recommended.