By David Elliott
A comedy of unreserved movie love, shot in Hollywood by French director Michel Hazanavicius. Big silent star George (like a merger of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, and Warren William) falls when sound arrives. The casting of brash, funny, hugely likeable Jean Dujardin as George gives heart to the charm. Bérénice Bejo (the director’s partner) as Peppy, an emerging star of talkies, is iffier (female stars of the era had more flesh), but she sure is “swell.” Beautiful design, period touches, and black-and-white tonalities sustain the simple story’s odd, witty dreaminess. Words are only heard at the end, and the lift of some <em>Vertigo </em>music is impudent but effective. This Chaplinesque nostalgia bubble has a tender, endearing fondness for its sources.
“I won’t talk!” silently mouths an actor in the silent movie being made inside The Artist, a film that is itself almost entirely silent in speech. Soon after, a studio sign says: Please Be Silent. But you will be hearing the humming sound of your own thoughts, along with laughs, as you submit happily to Michel Hazanavicius’s film.
Like the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, this strange new film is in love with movie love. The French director, whose clever but corny Bond parody OSS 117 did not prepare me for this, has made a silky valentine to silent Hollywood. Come Oscar time, the buzzing hive of modern Hollywood may respond with a prize or two (I personally nominate the lead actor). This black-and-white film has an impeccable spirit of devotion to old show biz and to our imagination of what it once was. It doesn’t have to be wildly funny or perfectly plotted to sustain its power of artful silence (words are heard only near the end, and the simple story requires few on-screen dialogue cards).
The ace card is the casting of Jean Dujardin as American star George Valentin, whose popularity withers as sound comes in. His old-style Brilliantine hair and “pencil moustache” are often braced by a huge grin. He looks terrific in costumes or, even better, a three-piece suit. He loves life, and movies, and women, and mirrors, and his dog Jack, a virtual clone of Asta in the Thin Man series (he is played by three Jack Russell terriers: Uggie, Dash, and Dude). As jaunty George grins, poses, and wanders, his sad wife droops like a potted palm (Penelope Ann Miller had more fun as Edna Purviance, Charlie’s favorite costar, in 1992’s Chaplin).
George’s bounding gusto recalls Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the Hollywood “king” (before Clark Gable) who aged quickly after sound came in. He looks like the forgotten ’30s star Warren William, and he soulfully echoes John Gilbert, another major moustache and a gifted actor who was ruined less by talk than the control mania of the Mayer-Thalberg regime at MGM. Despite the devoted support of Greta Garbo, Gilbert became a truly painful figure, and Hazanavicius was smart not to overdo the comparison. Resisting sound, George produces a silent film (a bomb), and then sulks and drinks, gives up the mansion, auctions his treasures, even sadly fires his devoted servant (James Cromwell, almost as loyal as the dog Jack). Through it all, Dujardin has great dignity, is hugely likeable, and pulls off touches of comic poignancy not far from Chaplin’s.
As Peppy Miller, who grabs the golden ring of sound and whose love for George stalls for a while in wistful friendship, Bérénice Bejo is certainly committed (in life she is Hazanavicius’s partner). She sure is peppy, though female stars of the era had more flesh; the skinny gals rose up later, with Ida Lupino, Lauren Bacall, and Veronica Lake. Bejo, who looks like a prettier Carol Burnett, is a plot device to bring on the smiles, kisses, and meet-cutes. She is what that era would have called “swell.”
Dujardin’s true costar is the immaculate design, the old devices (spinning headlines, dissolves, wipe-cuts, well-dressed crowds), the not-too-computerized vistas of classic L.A. — above all, the lovely tonalities of gray and silver, which are mostly quite close to what old movies looked like. The actors (Cromwell, Miller, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell, and, as the studio boss, John Goodman) fold into the atmosphere like pale, mute ghosts of themselves. The film murmurs delicate echoes of A Star Is Born and silent comedies and that great, joyful lie about the coming of sound, Singin’ in the Rain. You don’t need to be a buff to feel the pleasure.
Guillaume Schiffman’s photography rivals Gordon Willis’s for Zelig, Woody Allen’s tricky comedy about ’20s celebrity mania. The wittiest touch is that George so loves his silent-but-virile world of movie heroics that he seems to think and dream in silence. In a nightmare, he hears simple bathroom devices making noises, like subversive imps. Talk threatens his complacently happy posturing as a star, though he is never a dumb ditz like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. (But is George really an artist? His films seem pretty bad.) The retro clichés are not stale — as Hazanavicius has said, the “grammar of the movie is to play with clichés, and the clichés protect each other.”
In the later, 1932 segment of the film, the official portrait of President Calvin Coolidge in a public building is several years too late, and the use of yearning music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo is 26 years too early (and rather impudent). But that pilferage works surprisingly well and is clearly Hazanavicius’s tribute to a greater artist. Less witty than Zelig, less rich in Depression emotion than Pennies from Heaven, less stunningly stylized than Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, this oddball charmer is still a triumph, marching blithely to its own, silent drummer. Dujardin, so much more than a nostalgia moustache, gives it the heart of a star.