In 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is world famous as one of the biggest movie stars around. After the premiere of his latest film, he steps outside to greet the crowd of adoring fans and ends up having a run-in with fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Their encounter is photographed by the press and winds up being featured on the front page of Variety. Peppy is more than a fan, she’s an aspiring actress who winds up getting hired as an extra at Kinograph, the studio where George works. When George sees that Peppy is a talented dancer, he gets her a bit part in his new movie. The two of them hit it off and Peppy quickly finds herself getting bigger and bigger parts. But with the advent of sound films, George finds himself pressured to make talkies, a transition he does not want to make. He leaves the studio to produce his own silent films, but finds that he can’t compete with the new talkie stars like Peppy Miller. He loses everything, but with help from a friend, he finds the potential to reinvent himself to a new audience.
The Artist is easily my favorite movie of 2011. Not that I saw many new releases this year, but anyway. I loved everything about it — the acting, the cinematography, the story, the direction were all top notch. I most often hear the plot of The Artist described as being like Singin’ in the Rain meets A Star is Born, and although that is a pretty good way to describe it, don’t think that it’s just a rehash. It does have elements of both, but it stands well on its own and I had no problem judging it independently from those. It also isn’t just an endless parade of homages to other silent films, either. Director Michel Hazanavicius clearly did his silent film homework, but very much made it his own. In this article, Hazanavicius names six movies that inspired him to make The Artist, and I never would have guessed Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld or Lon Chaney’s The Unknown were among his influences for it.
Fans of silent films are bound to recognize characters and events in the movie as being inspired by real people and events. The character of George Valentin was essentially John Gilbert but with Douglas Fairbanks’ on-screen image. Although Gilbert didn’t hesitate to make the transition to sound the way Valentin does, his career did fall into a rapid decline after fighting with Louis B. Mayer and something similar happens to Valentin. When Valentin wants to continue making silent films, he produces and finances one on his own, reminiscent of how Gilbert wrote 1932’s Downstairs for himself when he was tired of being given lousy movies. Peppy Miller was definitely meant to be a Clara Bow, Colleen Moore type, but with a few moments of Greta Garbo thrown in. Yes, at one point, Peppy even says, “I want to be alone.” And when she wants to help George get work again, she demands that he be cast as her leading man, just like how Garbo got John Gilbert cast in Queen Christina.
Right now, it’s looking like The Artist is shaping up to be the top contender to win Best Picture at the Oscars. But when a movie gets as much acclaim as The Artist currently is, sooner or later, there will be a backlash against it and I can tell you right now what some of its detractors will say. If it does indeed win, there will be some who will say that it won just because being a silent film was such a novelty, it won for being a novelty. And even if it doesn’t win, they’ll just say all the hype was because it was a novelty. I can feel that argument is coming, so I’m just going to go ahead and comment on how absurd and condescending that idea is right now.
Speaking as somebody who routinely watches silent films, the idea of watching a movie without spoken dialogue isn’t a novelty to me, even if it is a modern movie. I would have been just as eager to see this one even if it did have dialogue. The concept of a modern silent film might be more of a selling point to others, but I highly doubt they’re going to like it purely because it’s a silent. At no point in time have I ever liked a silent film just because it was silent and neither have any of the other silent film fans I know. We’re not that easily amused, and that attitude reminds me of how NBC tried to capitalize on the success of Mad Men by green lighting The Playboy Club, thinking audiences would tune in just because it was set in the 1960’s, too.
I watch silent movies because I appreciate that method of storytelling, but there has to be a good story being told. The Artist is much more than just a silent film; it also has a wonderful story, an excellent cast, strong direction, and beautiful cinematography and those are perfectly valid reasons for it to be getting the acclaim it is. If the story isn’t your cup of tea, or even if you’re just not into silent movies, that’s just dandy, but to write it off as a novelty or a gimmick is completely ridiculous.