George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the most famous movie star in the 1920s. He has everything: looks, charisma, a bigger-than-life career, a big house and a beautiful wife. Peppy (Berenice Bejo) is an aspiring actress who has a crush on Valentin. When they meet at the studio, romantic sparks fly except Valentin is a big star and he’s married. They eventually go their separate ways.
Throughout the next few years, Peppy’s star begins to rise, while silent films are replaced by talkies. Valentin refuses to bow to the “new gimmick” and the studio wants new faces. Valentin decides to spend all his money producing his new silent movie, but the studio is right. No one wants to see silent films anymore.
When the Great Depression hits, Valentin loses everything, including his wife. He struggles to make ends meet while Peppy becomes one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.Their paths meet again, but despite their feelings for each other, Valentin is too proud to admit his failure and let Peppy take care of him and his career.
French actor Jean Dujardin (Little White Lies) was hardly known in the US, until now. The Artist showcases Dujardin’s handsome and expressive face, agile physicality, and great charisma. All without a single line of dialogue. It’s quite a feat and Dujardin has done an impressive job playing both the larger-than-life silent film star and the introspective, private man.
Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo (Prey) is just as charming as Peppy. Her effervescence helps lift the movie and steal some spotlight from Dujardin. They have great chemistry together, which seems more impressive given they never “said” a word to each other — or at least we never heard them speak.
American actors fill the supporting roles. John Goodman (Red State) plays the studio executive/director with a gleeful menace. James Cromwell (Secretariat) is earnest as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur. Penelope Ann Miller (Flipped) is fittingly cold as Valentin’s wife, and Missi Pyle (Taking Chances) has a small but flashy role as Valentin’s costar.
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Mes amis), who is also Bejo’s husband, the screenplay is both a melodrama and a delightful tribute to Hollywood’s past. Hazanavicius captures the magic and mood of the 1920s and early 30s, as well as the Hollywood studio system. The plot is, to be honest, rather simple and predictable and melodramatic. And suitably so. By adopting such a plot, Hazanavicius succeeds in giving us something that fits perfectly the spirit of his chosen media: silent film. I mean, how else are you going to tell a story with only minimal dialogue? Movie loves will notice his tribute to silent films and old Hollywood, all done in great humor.
Hazanavicius’s direction is light and breezy, with plenty of physical comedy and also melodrama. The production is handsome enough. But the most impressive part of the movie is the music. Given that’s more or less the only thing we hear throughout the movie, the music evokes the feel of a silent film perfectly. Composer Ludovic Bource has done a fantastic job.
The Artist, on surface, seems silly and cliched. But once you buy into the conceit, the result is a delightful and playful tribute to Hollywood. It’s also heartwarming and uplifting. Everything an artist would be proud of.