The concept driving "The Artist," a silent, black-and-white feature designed to imitate 1920's Hollywood productions, is more commendable than its execution. Michel Hazanavicius steps beyond the self-conscious parody of his two "OSS 117" films for a bittersweet homage to the sweeping language of the silent screen. Just as sound technology had a destructive impact on the careers of existing silent stars, "The Artist" resurrects its appeal without ever fully realizing the potential that inspired it.
(This review was originally published during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The Weinstein Company opens "The Artist" this Wednesday, November 23 in limited release.)
"You belong to another era," says the cigar-chomping studio chief Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to handsome leading man George Valentin (Jean Dujarin), explaining his diminishing popularity. The year is 1927. As Al Jolson sing "My Mammy" for the end of "The Jazz Singer," sound is rapidly developing into the expected norm for audiences everywhere. Blinded by ego, George ignores the warning and soldiers on, while his star quickly fades. Meanwhile, cutesy aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), made famous overnight when George sweeps her off her feet at a flashy premiere, quickly inherits the new demands of the business and hits it big. When George eventually finds himself washed up and abandoned by his moody wife Constance (Missi Pyle), the sympathetic Peppy tries to help George find his footing again.
On the surface, "The Artist" is a simple romantic comedy with lavish production values and a charmingly lighthearted plot. But that's also its chief flaw: "The Artist" is all surface. Although easy on the eyes, it indulges in homage with no less gratuity than the references of your average Quentin Tarantino script. If the script had spoken dialogue in place of its anachronistic cue cards, it would be a relentless bore. The gimmick saves it.
Precedents exist for this type of project. Mel Brooks' 1976 farce "Silent Movie" lovingly spoofed the clichés of silent film. Even Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights," made in 1931 during the post-talkie period but defiantly silent, mocked the arrival of sound film by giving the sole talking character in the opening scene an absurdly high-pitched voice, as though he had been huffing helium. "The Artist" has nothing on Brooks' well-honed gags or Chaplin's convictions, although it's just as pretty to watch, and not without its sentimental delights.
The real star of the show is director of photography Guillaume Shiffman. If "The Artist" gains any commercial traction, Shiffman ought to get the most of its success. Shooting in a 1.33 ratio and imitating the complex grey scales of innumerable silent traditions–from German Expressionism to the shadowy American noirs that came out of it–Shiffman provides the foundation for the movie's appeal. With few exceptions, Hazanavicius's trim story can barely keep up. The best moments play with the impact that silent and sound techniques have on storytelling techniques: George has a curious nightmare where the whole world turns vocal but he still can't speak. A climactic fake-out uses an ambiguous title card. And then there's the keenly analytical last shot, when microphones finally open up to the full world of the movie set.
Drawing out these distinctions, "The Artist" tracks the creative possibilities of the art form in its early stages, and how its influence continued into the Golden Age. (Hint: It has something to do with dance.) Hazanavicius delivers an earnest love letter to the medium, if not one substantial enough to avoid unflattering comparisons to its superior reference points.
As Billy Wilder did with "Sunset Blvd.," Hazanavicius observes a generational shift in the transition to sound that has deep cultural ramifications. (A young man tells George that his father is a big fan of the actor's work.) However, while Wilder examined how the end of the silents affected early stardom, "The Artist" plays around with the distinction between silent and sound cinema, resulting in the superficial entertainment value of a high concept film school joke. But it's a charming and supremely gorgeous joke–sometimes too clever for its own good, other times not clever enough, and always at least an attractive diversion.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Purchased for U.S. distribution by the Weinstein Company ahead of Cannes, "The Artist" has a shot at box office success in limited release if the company figures out a way to make its retroactive look seem cool to younger audiences.
criticWIRE grade: B+