A wonderful new silent film just opened called “The Artist.” Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film tells the fictional story of silent film star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), who rejects talking pictures. Despite Valentin’s immense popularity as an action and romantic star, his studio (Kinograph Studios) refuses to see him as a relevant commodity in the new and exciting sound era. Valentin helps the beautiful and talented Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo) after she gets a job on his last silent studio film (“A German Affair.”). His advice and attention catapults her to great stardom in sound pictures.
The Artist is clever, delightful, charming and very funny. Valentin, the silent star, always appears with his trusty and terrifically talented dog. In fact, the dog, a Jack Russell terrier, does so many amazing things in this movie that it made me wonder why the studio wouldn’t want to package the dog for some sound films. The character of Valentin is modeled after Douglas Fairbanks Senior and he has the same kind of witty, athletic and confident charm. Unlike Fairbanks, a founding member of United Artist and a successful businessman, Valentin descends into an alcoholic has-been with too much pride to accept the end of silent movies. (In the way, he seems more like iconic silent star John Gilbert.) He throws all his money into his own production of a silent film called “Tears of Love,” a depressing action feature which opens to dismal audiences while Peppy’s “Beauty Spot,” a sound picture, attracts large crowds.
Director Hazanavicius plays with the novelty of sound, particularly when Valentin begins hearing things, such as when he puts his glass down. Thinking there’s something wrong, Valentin attempts to talk, but nothing comes out. Then we hear his dog bark and the telephone ringing. All those sounds can be achieved in the silents with sound effects, but hearing the human voice provides the distinction between sound pictures and silent pictures. We get the feeling that Valentin is actually being muted by the technology.
The Peppy Miller character seems a lot like Joan Crawford, who became a sensation in a dozen or more silent movies before becoming a great star in sound pictures. Crawford was a wonderful dancer with bright eyes and a perky smile, and so is Miller, who never forgets Valentin’s kindness or his unique talent as she continuously tries to help the fallen star. It’s impossible to imagine Jean Dujardin not winning an academy award for his performance in The Artist, but Berenice Bejo delivers an excellent performance as well. I am looking forward to seeing this movie again.