George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has a dream halfway through The Artist with real sound. He sets a glass down on the table and it makes a noise. The phone rings, the dog barks, and it all sounds so harsh and shrill. Both George and the audience wait for George to wake up and end these horrible noises. Please, take us back to the wonderful world of silent film in black and white whose only sound is the soothing cinematic orchestral score.
Yes, The Artist is silent. The actors are moving their mouths but only every now and then does a dialogue screen pop up for the audience to read. The effect of this throwback is a mesmerizing masterpiece. Just as Hugo was homage to the earliest films and George Melies, The Artist celebrates the late 1920s silent film era and appears so accurate it most likely could have been released in 1927. The giveaway is that everybody in the movie theater on screen is smoking. Nobody in Hugo’s Parisian train station was smoking which is good for the kiddies, but kills authenticity.
George is the silver screen’s golden boy. His motion pictures make a ton of money, the audience loves his swashbuckling heroes, and his incredibly well-trained Jack Russell Terrier usually stars right along side of him. Through a series of unlikely events, an aspiring actress, a perfectly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), appears on his studio lot as an extra and they develop a noticeable level of chemistry together, though there is no sign of adultery because this is 1927. George is a married man and while he may be distant from his wife, there will be no vow breaking here.
If you are familiar with Singin’ in the Rain, then you know what is coming – the talkies. George takes one look at an early prototype of an actress speaking on screen and laughs at is as a gimmick. Nothing could replace silent film and besides, the audience, “his audience”, would never stand for it. How wrong he is. Soon enough, studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) fires George choosing to begin the era of sound in film with fresh faces, such as Peppy Miller.
The depression strikes, George blows through his savings on one last ditch attempt to save silent film, and he is done for. He is not alone though, his reliable dog is with him as well as his now unpaid chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell). Peppy is never far either. She remembers who was responsible for her meteoric rise and is perhaps playing some Fairy Godmother role in George’s life even though she is much younger.
The plot seems a bit thin and silly as I write this, but it comes across as much deeper than it sounds. George and Peppy are wonderful on screen together and The Artist is just so much fun to sit back and watch. The doubters will naturally stay away from it no matter what anybody writes; the combination of black and white and silence is just too scary to think about sitting through even though this is leagues above the common denominator.