Naturally, I loved Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a movie that understands and celebrates such early pleasures. I'm equally grateful that in a year when the final Harry Potter movie boomed its way toward supersonic levels of fantasy, director Michel Hazanavicius brings back simpler joys in The Artist, a black-and-white silent movie.
Although The Artist tells a familiar story – a silent star (Jean Dujardin) hits the skids when talkies arrive – the movie nonetheless feels fresh, buoyed by a love for the movies, and perhaps even more importantly by a fascination with the gleam that movies (and everything about them) seem to give off, radiant light of unparalled intensity. The Artist also features a great dog, the importance of which shouldn't be underestimated.
Set in Hollywood, The Artist begins with Dujardin’s George Valentin at the peak of his career in the silents. Not surprisingly, Valentin relishes his celebrity, wearing it as flamboyantly and easily as a cape flung around his ample shoulders.
Dujardin, of course, has the right look for this kind of role: He’s handsome with a high-wattage smile. Valentin lives with the wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and loyal pooch in one of those lavish Hollywood mansions, something straight out of Sunset Boulevard, only less creepy. An obscenely large painting of a beaming George in top hat and tails hangs next to the front door, George's tribute to himself.
The story contrives to mix Valentin's fate with that of a young dancer (Berenice Bejo). Valentin gives the star-struck dancer her first break. She goes on to have a career that not only survives the transition to sound but flourishes. She’s Peppy Miller, a star with a name that sounds as if had been borrowed from a soft drink.
Not to be outdone, Valentin decides that he must carry on with what he regards as a purer form of movie artistry. He wants to make one more silent movie to prove that the studio types – represented here by John Goodman – are wrong. But Valentin succeeds only in showing how right Hollywood is to embrace sound. The public wants the next new thing, and Valentin's picture flops.
Hazanavicius makes a brief, startling and witty use of the sound in one of Valentin’s dreams, perhaps the movie’s most clever moment, but he's not resorting to silence as a gimmick; the absence of the human voice enhances the story.
The Artist balances Valentin’s melodramatic decline with an upbeat ending that’s designed to send audiences home smiling. Hazanavicius accomplishes this without late-picture expressions of profundity or phony uplift, but with one of the great and least fettered forms of human delight: tap dancing. Need I say more?