By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
“I won't talk!" exclaims the dapper hero with electrodes strapped to his ears in the silvery opening frames of The Artist. "I won't say a single word!" That his protests are conveyed by silent movie title cards confirms them.
George Valentin, a grand ham stylishly played by Jean Dujardin, will eventually, briefly break that vow. But not until writer-director Michel Hazanavicius is ready to break the spell of 2011's boldest cinematic accomplishment. There is no other way to describe a modern movie daring to emulate primitive Hollywood, in lustrous black-and-white with barely any sound except evocative music and a few cagily inserted sound effects. Everything old is new again.
Yet The Artist isn't merely a nostalgic throwback to Hollywood's past. It is also a charming lesson for a present in which magic is measured by pixels and gimmicks, when movies have gotten smaller than Norma Desmond dreamed by becoming bigger. Hazanavicius goes 180 degrees retro, coaxing us to read lips, faces and title cards to know what's in hearts and minds.
The Artist is a movie of showy emotion and consequences for George who, like Norma in Sunset Boulevard, is a victim of change. George was the most dashing movie star of his day but that speechless day is ending. Talkies are the future in 1927 and George wants nothing to do with it. To him, there is nothing wrong with the now that another silent hit won't cure. His cigar-chomping producer (John Goodman) knows that won't happen.
The lone bright spot in George's life is an ingenue named Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius' wife, Berenice Bejo), bringing a whiff of A Star is Born to the movie. Peppy was a nobody until a chance meeting with George made her an overnight sensation in talkies. She never forgets what he did for her; he resents the change she represents. The Artist isn't a complex tale by any stretch, rather delicate enough that the less known, the better.
Dujardin is marvelous as George, emoting with the arch expressions of silent stars and, from a later era, Gene Kelly's rakish grin and masculine aura. George is a showboat who becomes shipwrecked, and Dujardin seems transported from the '20s to play the arc without irony. Bejo makes a dazzling flapper, batting her big whatever color eyes and speaking volumes of body language.
Hazanavicius surrounds their up-and-down romance with a movie buff's delight of classic movie inspirations, even talkies. Notice how George's modest home after his fall resembles Debbie Reynolds' place in Singin' in the Rain, a Rin Tin Tin-style rescue and a marriage's demise over time and a breakfast table, a la Citizen Kane. Extra credit for anyone able to identify the music borrowed from a 1950s classic for a climactic chase.
I've viewed The Artist three times now, and each time the smile on my face grew wider and took longer to wipe away. Hazanavicius crafted more than a replica of the silent era; this feels like a time capsule found 80 years later, right on time to be revolutionary in a louder world. Yet The Artist is a masterwork that likely won't be imitated. How many movies in 2011 can you say that about? Only the best one.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.