In the classic film “Singin’ in the Rain,” directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly examined Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema from the perspective of the winners; actors like Kelly’s Don Lockwood, who successfully survived the advent of the talkies. In the new romantic drama “The Artist,” director Michel Hazanavicius reimagines that same journey from the perspective of the losers, men like Jean Dujardin‘s George Valentin, who were left behind when Al Jolson belted out his first onscreen tune in “The Jazz Singer.” While “Singin’ in the Rain” used the formal language of the musical to celebrate everything that the movies gained with sound, “The Artist” cleverly uses the language of silent cinema to remind us of what the movies lost, namely the magic of pure visual storytelling.
Dujardin is the film’s impossibly handsome and charismatic star, a Douglas Fairbanks-esque matinee idol. As “The Artist” begins, he’s presenting the premiere of his new adventure picture, “A Russian Affair.” The film within the film is clearly silent, but it’s not immediately obvious that “The Artist” is too. It opens with a packed house enjoying “A Russian Affair” while a full orchestra plays an accompanying score. It’s only when the movie palace audience bursts into ecstatic applause — and we hear absolutely nothing on the soundtrack — that we understand the extent of Hazanavicius’ devotion to the silent film form.
At the premiere, George has a chance encounter with an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and still more chance pairs George and Peppy together in George’s next film (this one’s titled “A German Affair”). Their chemistry is instant and obvious in a wonderful scene where George, the superstar, is supposed to casually dance with Peppy, the lowly extra, as he navigates a crowded dance floor. George spoils take after take, enchanted by Peppy’s beauty and distracted by her touch. Again, there’s no dialogue, but Dujardin and Bejo tell us everything we need to know through gestures and body language. A few helpful cutaways to the production’s clapperboard do the rest of the work.
George’s boss at Kinograph Studios (John Goodman) believes that talking pictures are the future. Peppy embraces sound and rises from chorus girl to household name; George rejects sound and suffers a precipitous fall, foolishly sinking his fortune into an ominously titled silent epic called “Tears of Love.” If George wasn’t crying before he got the box office results…
George’s arc is sad but “The Artist” is nevertheless an exuberant movie. The key to its success is the way Hazanavicius turns silent cinema’s restrictions into opportunities for the sort of whimsical gestures that modern movies rarely allow. After George and Peppy share their dance on the set of “A German Affair” she goes looking for him in his dressing room. Finding it empty, she stops and admires his tuxedo jacket, and as she tries it on, it magically comes to life, embracing her as she imagines what it might feel like in George’s arms. In a sound film, Peppy would no doubt explain her feelings for her co-star to a plucky sidekick (and the audience). The silent approach is, in this case, far more economical and far more powerful.
I’m not sure cameos from the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, and others add anything to the film beyond unnecessary distractions and George’s cold, shrewish wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is an unfortunate mix of convenience and “Citizen Kane” homages. An argument could also be made that the film’s ending is thematically inappropriate to Hazanavicius’ “Singin’ in the Rain” counter-narrative. But I don’t think the director is eulogizing silent cinema as much as he’s mythologizing the true artists of the Hollywood dream factory, and that makes George and Peppy’s final fate the only sensible one. He’s paying tribute to those great old crowd pleasers by making one of his own, while reminding us that silent films aren’t inferior to sound ones, just a little different.