One has to admire “The Artist” for it’s sheer chutzpah: the idea that someone can make a silent, black-and-white movie in this day and age and achieve massive Oscar-winning success is nearly unthinkable.
Yet that is exactly what director Michel Hazanavicius has done with this love-letter to the cinema of the 1920s. With a story that involves a silent-film star (Jean Dujardin) whose career fades when the talkies arrive, and the nobody-who-gets-a-big-break (Bérénice Bejo) whose stardom eclipses his, “The Artist” feels both strangely familiar — “Singin’ in the Rain” meets “A Star is Born” — and vaguely exotic, with things like tap-dancing or exaggerated facial emoting resurrected from the limbo of uncool. While directors such as Steven Spielberg and his ilk often yammer on about “visual storytelling” and how a film ideally communicates its story through the images alone, Hazanavicius has walked the walk while they still talk the talk.
His boldest move is to fully embrace the big, campy emotions and naive romanticism of the cinematic era he portrays, and he certainly proves to audiences this stuff can still work. It’s a world removed from the knowing, wink-wink revivalism of the Coen Bros. in such films as “The Hudsucker Proxy” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, although Hazanavicius’ cinephile obsession with capturing the look and feel of an era is similar. “The Artist” is less about postmodernism than classicism. (Although the film’s best joke is extremely postmodern — I won’t spoil it here, of course.)
One of the movie’s key scenes has rising Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller (Bejo), now queen of the talkies, being interviewed by some reporters. She decides to talk trash, and the title cards have her glibly remarking how “people are tired of old actors mugging for the camera to be understood. Out with the old, in with the new. … That’s life!” Then over at the next table she sees down-on-his-luck silent star George Valentin (Dujardin), her great unrequited love, and her heart sinks.
It’s a classic movie moment of pure pathos, but it also contains Hazanavicius’ point: Did we lose something important, a uniquely poetic means of expression, when the silent movie was tossed into the trash can of history? (Ironically just as the art form was reaching new heights, such as with Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” or Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”)
Looking at the few treasured handwritten letters that I still cherish decades after they were written versus the kazillion emails that could disappear tomorrow and not bother me in the least, I’m certainly down with the idea that the advance of technology often means heedlessly trashing things we should cherish. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood summed up the views of many of her contemporaries when she said, “Going forward, things don’t just get better: They can get worse. ‘Modern’ is a question we have to abandon. Intuitively, (people) are going back to things in the past.” Hazanavicius would seem to agree.
And yet it’s not like Hazanavicius is picking up where the great silent directors left off: “The Artist” trades heavily in nostalgia, with almost every scene evoking a sense of déjà vu — often because it is a direct quote, from “7th Heaven,” “Vertigo” or “Citizen Kane.” This is despite the fact that the use of silent techniques is not at a dead end: Look no further than Zack Snyder’s rather brilliant opening to “Sucker Punch,” Maggie Cheung slinking about in her hip-hugging cheongsam dresses in “In the Mood for Love,” or the first 30 minutes of “Wall-E” — to say nothing of entire films such as “Baraka” or “Essential Killing.”
The most damning example is, of course, Sylvain Chomet’s animated feature “The Illusionist,” one of 2010’s best films, which also featured a performer who’s reached his sell-by date, the fan who adores him, and no dialogue whatsoever. It was just as retro but also funnier and more heartbreaking than “The Artist,” yet animation is rarely given the credit it’s due.
“The Artist” ultimately becomes an exercise in stylistic wizardry, riffing skillfully on our collective memories of “old movies” in general, while making a product that is technically superior. (And when phrased that way, it doesn’t sound a mile away from the thinking that gave us “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) This is conservative for sure, but somehow refreshing: As the scattershot everything-at-once world of Net connectivity ever decreases our ability to concentrate, the mere act of turning down the sensory input for an experience seems like a bold act of cultural resistance.