By Judy Paterson
December 23, 2011
The opening scene of the nearly silent, black-and-white film “The Artist” has George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the superstar of silent film, perched atop the hot seat with currents of electrified noise being pumped into his brain. He’d rather die than join the barbarian hoards switching to the talkies. Yak. Yak. Yak. Who needs it? Not him. Never.
But as soon as he steps back into the comfy role of silent film star, we see he is a little bit over the hill, not so young anymore, with his perfect grooming and perfect teeth and perfectly slicked-back, albeit thinning, hair.
Two people who have gone all out for the noisy fad Valentin despises are an oppressive studio boss, played deadpan, by John Goodman and Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a lovely, talented and pushy piece of work who will do anything to get ahead. A sweet, slow-moving love inevitably grows between the stubborn has-been and the starlet. But as her career sky-rockets and his plummets, we know trouble is coming. What we don’t know is how far he will sink in order to stand up for the art he believes in. Or what, if anything, can save him.
The film’s French writer and director, Michel Hazanavicius, says he had fantasized about making a silent film for seven or eight years. It’s clear that he is crazy about the silent cinema, and the first hour of “The Artist” is a love letter to an art formed not so much by technology as by what actors could do with their bodies and their faces. But you don’t have to be as crazy about silent films or as familiar with them as he is to love this smart, poignant lark of a movie. I found the old, old story of pride before a fall and the possibility of redemption as satisfying as ever. I did not think about the almost complete absence of speech until the film ended and I realized I hadn’t missed it.
“The Artist” is a grown-up film in all the best ways, but I suspect young people will also enjoy it—and learn a thing or two about how things used to be and how far we have come, for better and for worse.
THE ARTIST (100 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.
Judith Paterson taught writing to Journalism students at the University of Maryland for 25 years. She also hosted, directed and produced an authors’ interview show called “The Writer’s Tale” for UMTV.