The Artist, a near-silent black-and-white film by the French director Michel Hazanavicius, is essentially a novelty item, but none the less captivating for that. Think of this retro-styled romantic comedy as the movie equivalent of a mint-condition Art Deco cigarette case picked up on a lucky day at the flea market. Days after first discovering it, you’ll be taking it out of your pocket to admire its cunning design and silvery luster. This slight but enormously likable picture seems destined to be an awards magnet: A holiday release with enough formal sophistication to appeal to cinephiles and enough old-fashioned showbiz bravado to win over a general audience.
The film’s story structure echoes the classic A Star Is Born Hollywood romance, with its opposing trajectories of fame: George Valentin (the impossibly charming Jean Dujardin), a dashing silent actor in the Douglas Fairbanks mode, sees his career decline with the advent of sound, while a plucky upstart named Peppy Miller (gangly beauty Bérénice Béjo, who’s also the director’s wife) ascends to flapper stardom à la Clara Bow.
The first line we hear George Valentin speak—or rather, see him speak, in a curlicue-bordered intertitle—is “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” As it turns out, George is on a movie set, speaking in character as a hero refusing to reveal information to his captors. But his words soon prove prophetic: When he’s shown a “talkie” test reel by his hard-nosed producer (John Goodman), George dismisses the new technology as a passing craze. Eventually, he leaves the studio to bankroll his own silent productions, a failure we witness in a making-of montage with frequent dissolves to a hand writing thousand-dollar checks.
The second act of the movie chronicles George’s decline into genteel poverty and borderline alcoholism (his addiction is less fun than Nick and Nora’s, but never as grim as Ray Milland’s). He moves from his lavish mansion to a modest house after he’s abandoned by his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), a sad-eyed blonde bombshell who seems fashioned after the second Mrs. Charles Foster Kane. But even at his lowest point, George retains the loyalty of his longtime valet (James Cromwell, acquitting himself admirably as always) and his dog (a short-haired Jack Russell terrier gamely embodied by canine players Uggie, Dash, and Dude.) The ingénue-turned-diva Peppy Miller, who as a bit player once shared an unexpectedly romantic onscreen moment with George, tries to find him work as a second banana in her movies, but will this long-silent actor be too proud to accept?
The Artist’s plot is a deliberately unoriginal backstage melodrama. It’s affecting enough to draw us into the movie (and to remind us of the old movies this one both teases and venerates). But what keeps us in the movie is what’s happening on its playful, shimmering surface. Hazanavicius is constantly turning form into content and vice versa: When George has a nightmare about the coming of the sound era, we suddenly begin hearing the banal noises of daily life: a dog barking, a vase set down on a table. Later, as he stands in front of a screen where he’d been drunkenly projecting his old silent films, George’s own shadow gets disgusted with him and walks out—the simplest of old-school special effects, but eerily effective all the same.
There are too many of these nimble cinematic sleights-of-hand to catalogue here, and discovering them is the film’s chief pleasure, so I’ll desist. For all of its narrative and visual delights, The Artist drags a bit in the last third: George’s downward trajectory takes a few too many downturns to be credible, and the movie starts to slip toward the maudlin (not to mention the overly long). When things do turn around for George (and I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that this light romantic comedy doesn’t end in bleak despair), the plot threads get wrapped up a bit too hastily. The last shot has some of the forced, claustrophobic happiness of a lesser MGM musical, a cinematic reference that may not be intentional.
The movie’s climactic sequence also features an inexplicable and, to me, unnerving appropriation of something from an earlier film. As a distraught Peppy leaps into her roadster and speeds to George’s side, Ludovic Bource’s lovely, supple original score is suddenly supplanted by a solid five minutes of the love theme from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. This isn’t an homage or pastiche of the famous Herrmann motif (itself a reworking of a theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). It’s a straight-up lift, duly acknowledged in the credits. For anyone familiar with the Hitchcock classic (which for a movie-lover’s movie like this must be a significant chunk of the audience), the music takes you straight out of The Artist’s world and deposits you in a San Francisco hotel room where Kim Novak is showing Jimmy Stewart her new hairdo. The association with the original is so strong that hearing the theme only points up the distance between that movie’s emotional heft and this one’s amusing, but undeniable, lightness. But maybe this clunky misstep stands out all the more given that, for most of this clever and delightful film, Hazanavicius navigates old-Hollywood tropes with the nimbleness of Fred Astaire on roller skates.