Already hyped by the Cannes Film Festival and a slew of awards, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a bold retread to classic pictures. Like Singin’ in the Rain, it is about a silent film star and his obsolesce once “talkies” grow in popularity. Hazanavicius takes things a step further: The Artist unfolds without dialogue, instead relying on an emotive score, expressive faces, and title cards. Hazanavicius easily pulls off comedy and desperation, but the movie slackens its grip once it veers toward melodrama.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the most famous star in Hollywoodland, and he knows it. He gladly mugs for the audience and the press, who eat up his charm and good looks. Everyone is watching him outside his latest premiere, so a chance encounter with a young woman inspires the papers to ask, “Who’s that girl?” We learn she is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and her enthusiasm matches her name. To the chagrin of George’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), Peppy becomes the latest “It Girl.” Meanwhile, studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman in full-on scenery-chewing mode) tells George about talking pictures. George responds with dismissal and denial, putting his money where his house mouth is by funding his own silent masterpiece.
The charm and joy of the opening act is infectious. It is easy to see why Dujardin, who you may recognize from Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 films, is the perfect actor to play George. His broad smile and capacity for grand gestures would be out of place in a modern film, yet this kind of physicality is precisely what the role requires. There are early signs of his massive ego and thoughtlessness, and it is still easy to like him anyway. Bejo shares the same qualities, also adding pluck and romantic longing: Peppy’s has a crush on George, and the way she imagines herself into her arms is so heartfelt that it would like Chaplain jealous.
But before George begins his directorial debut, Hazanavicius adds a nightmare sequence that sets the tenor of what will follow. The nightmare is the best scene in The Artist because it subverts the tenets of silent film while articulating George’s genuine terror. Beginning with the money he squanders, George embarks on a long decline. Like the comic sections, this descent into tragedy works because the nonverbal expression of helplessness is potent without sound. Peppy’s rise to stardom helps keep the material from being too gloomy, as do the two most important companions in George’s life: his chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) and his Jack Russell terrier. But in a moment of heartbreaking self-pity, George forces Clifton to leave him.
The final stretches, where George sinks to his lowest and rages against his folly, are where The Artist loses command of its tone. Hazanavicius does not follow his story into tragedy, opting instead for some unlikely saviors. I have no problem with Hazanavicius steering away from a downer ending. Still, the reliance on cornball plotting drains any sense of urgency. To compensate, the music swells to an emotional crescendo, but the cloying score only creates dramatic dissonance. As a result, an ending that’s full of energy and confidence nevertheless rings false.
Hazanavicius, Dujardin, and Bejo are no strangers to recreating classic film style. In OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and its sequel, the team went through great pains to maintain the sheen of early Bond films. But whereas the OSS 117 films are strictly comedies, The Artist is more ambitious and risky. Ironically, slavish devotion to silent storytelling is what causes its undoing: modern movies undermine what would easily provoke an emotional reaction eighty years ago. Between Hazanavicius’ film and Hugo, we have two heartfelt valentines to a bygone era. But unlike Scorsese’s latest, The Artist feels like a long-lost artifact.