You won't find a lovelier valentine to the movies' past, present, and future than the black-and-white and near-silent The Artist, writer and director Michel Hazanavicius' affectionate tribute to the silent screen and the actors who pioneered it. You also won't find a more inspired piece of filmmaking in theaters this season.
In 1927 Hollywood, matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the movie world. He's famous, he's handsome, and the press and public fawn over every move he makes. He's larger than life — a celebrity more than an actor, whose best friend is his faithful dog. He even has the clout to give unknown dancer Peppy Miller (a positively radiant Bérénice Bejo) a spot in one of his movies, which begins her own ascent up Hollywood's chain of command.
But then talking pictures begin to revolutionize the industry, and George — a traditionalist who has no need for what he considers a passing fad — brushes off the technological breakthroughs happening around him and sets in motion his slow but steady downfall over the next few years.
The story is straight out of A Star Is Born, but the inspiration comes from almost 100 years of cinema, as well as from its own brilliant mind. There are movies within the movie and iris fade-outs and barely a word spoken in its 100 minutes. The score is total old-timey-movie, with exaggerated whooshes and melodramatic crescendos following George through every up and down he experiences during the dawn of talkies.
The French Dujardin (best known for his recurring role as a secret agent in the spy parody series OSS 117) plays the silent star who refuses to bend to Hollywood's new obsession like he climbed out of a late-'20s adventure movie: dashing, charming, over-the-top, and just a little bit full of himself. It's one of 2011's best performances, made all the more remarkable because Dujardin hardly utters a word.
Hazanavicius, as screenwriter and director, frames The Artist as both a behind-the-scenes and an in-front-of-the-cameras look at the movies. It pulls the curtain back a little on the craft of moviemaking, but it also immerses itself in the magic of movies themselves, hitting all the right emotions — elation, heartbreak, and everything in between — without ever breaking from its resolute purpose of entertaining.
The Artist is filled with period and insider details, from the way Peppy's name is misspelled in her first screen credit to the way audiences gasp and marvel at the movies' evolution. And just to put you in their seats, Hazanavicius introduces us to sound in an ear-opening sequence that will shake your senses. That's what movies are all about. And it's what this wonderful film gets exactly right, time and time again.