The idea of sitting in a movie theater for a modern, black and white, silent movie that isn’t for class and doesn’t star Charlie Chaplin could easily come off as daunting and overly pretentious. “The Artist,” however, avoids both those labels. It’s a silent breath of fresh air in a landscape of loud, grating movies and a hilarious respite from unoriginal comedies.
The film opens in 1927 at the height of famous silent actor George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) career. While he may not be the most sensitive person, he certainly is the most charming, using his extremely well-trained pet Jack Russell terrier to wow the crowds and impress everyone. Through a chance encounter, a trope that seems to happen only in the realm of old Hollywood movies, George gives ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) her big break. The two are smitten with each other, but their love comes with a hitch, namely George’s wife. He’s happily married and has far too much honor to do anything. Two years later, the fictitious but all-powerful Kinograph Film Studio head (John Goodman) cancels all silent films. George, for reasons of his own, refuses to work in a world of talking cinema, and the inexorable wave of modernity sweeps him by.
With each moment, “The Artist” establishes itself as one of the smartest films out there. It’s made by expert parody director Michel Hazanavicius, famous for French spy films “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio.” Here, he flexes his muscles in a completely different genre, approaching an antiquated idea with a modern perspective. He plays upon audience expectations of sound, creating tension and breaking it with incredible pacing.
The two leads, both famous in their own right in France, are relatively new to American audiences but destined for stateside stardom. Dujardin, who won best actor for this role at Cannes, is bursting with charisma, from the comedy with his dog to his Cary Grant tap dancing to even his comically thin mustache. He captures your heart, and you can’t help but sympathize, as he becomes a forgotten memory in an ever-changing world. Bejo shows off her own tap talents and makes you believe the turn from unknown nobody to radiant star all in a few scenes.
However, the award for best in show, pun certainly intended, goes to Uggy the dog. Not since Shadow from “Homeward Bound” has there been a dog so instantly loveable, and not since Dug from “Up” has there been a canine with such biting comedic wit, and not since Lassie has there been a dog so capably heroic. This pooch will leave you begging for more.
Since “The Artist” is about the relentless push toward modernity and the gems that get lost in its wake, it makes a really interesting reflexive statement as well. Here is a film that is so successful in using a past medium that it makes the audience feel a bit of nostalgia or at least a reverence for a long-forgotten art. Compared to the latest 3-D sequel and its various explosions and trendy rock soundtracks, “The Artist” will seem pretty out of place, but it’s so pristine in its presentation that it’s impossible to resist. Expect to see “The Artist” in theaters come awards season. It’ll certainly get people talking, even if its characters stay silent.