The Artist is the first (almost completely) silent film since the 1920s to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It is also the least likely winner to hit the mainstream circuit and find a broad audience. I can only reiterate what many critics have already suggested: give the film a chance if you are so inclined.
Of course the film will not please everybody. Current audiences aren’t merely satisfied with color and sound anymore. They want loud bangs, bright fireballs, booming bass, and a pair of 3D glasses when the technology is used properly. The Artist has neither color, nor sound—outside out a score accompanyment and a few select moments of audible dialogue. How can a black and white silent film possibly compete in such a crowded market with the highest production bells and whistles?
In many ways, The Artist dazzles just the same as some of the biggest visual blockbusters. Rooted in its characters, the film bellows a winning story about a 1920s silent Hollywood film actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), on top of his iconic career as a swashbuckling star. His marriage may be on the rocks, but he is on top of the world comercially. He auditions a fair young dancer for his latest film, an instant stunner named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) with whom he shares a spark.
In the midst of casting for his current production, George is introduced to a new filmmaking venture—the use of sound. He laughs at a test reel of it, believing audiences will never buy into such a gimmick. To his horror, his world quickly comes crashing down beneath his feet. His wife (Penelope Ann Miller) forces him out of the house. His producers oust him from their studio claiming the times are changing to a new world of sound.
Letting his pride take over, George decides to fund his own wilderness adventure B-film as producer, director, and star. The film is set to open opposite the new Peppy Miller-starring romantic comedy featuring sound. Peppy becomes an overnight sensation, skyrocketting her to the top of the A-list. George’s silent film becomes a colassal failure crippling his finances severely. Within moments he is practically forgotten, forced to sell all his property via auction and move into a low-rent apartment where his self-loathing and oncoming depression consume him. Only Peppy may be able to save George from total destruction.
The Artist serves both as a love story and as a story of redemption. George’s character allows his pride to ruin his life. I kept wondering why George wouldn’t at least attempt a ‘talkie’ film in an effort to save his career. That is not who he is, and it becomes clear later on why that avenue wouldn’t suit him as well. He’s a physical performer, engaging the audience through exaggerated facial expression and a charismatic smile. His neglecting of his wife and quest for glory from his audience become his downfall. He’s a man left with nothing when the credits roll on his career.
I appreciated very much the relationship developed between George and Peppy. They create a strong chemistry without the use of words and only minimal dialogue cards. Peppy is consistently loyal to George, even when the studio turns him away and his own wife closes the door on him. The sensational actors, Bérénice Bejo and the now Oscar-winning Jean Dujardin, are a literal joy to watch as performers. Dujardin as the star of the film, mugs and smiles his way into our hearts initially before tragedy befalls him. The actor’s physical emoting carries us through his journey.
I’ll admit I was resistant to the idea of a current silent film, especially one fishing for awards. The thought of it seemed as gimmicky as 3D. But this is an old fashioned escape in the best sense, and the medium is almost demanded considering the setting and the subject matter where it really proves worth the risk of alienating audiences. I’m reminded of Steven Spielberg shooting Schindler’s List in black and white. While the subject matter may be entirely on opposite ends of the spectrum, the idea behind the filmmaking technique is not. We are literally transported to the world that Director Michel Hazanavicius wanted to take us to.
I think he took a bold risk and made a bold film that functions much the same way as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo does for movie lovers—he reminds us why we love movies. Their history. Their power. The art of the medium. The more I recollect and think back on The Artist, the more I truly appreciate it, and the more I realize I will probably appreciate it more as time goes on. I would advise you if you are curious about The Artist, to not be turned off by the idea of it as a silent film in black and white. Instead, focus on the world of the film and the story that it’s telling. If you allow yourself to get swept up by it, you won’t regret it.