‘The Artist’ (2012) review: When words aren’t needed

‘The Artist’ a reminder of what’s great about movies

Enmeshed is a brilliant simplicity, reveling in a time both laced with nostalgia and nonexistent wonders, “The Artist” is an objet d’art that’s at once strikingly touching and unexpectedly humorous. And for a film that, for the most part, is silent save the cinematic music, “The Artist” celebrates a long-forgotten era so beautifully, so utterly captivating, words are truly unneeded.

On that note, “The Artist,” directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is not technically a silent movie; there’s music on the soundtrack and some well-placed moments of onscreen noise that may end up surprising you. In fact, “The Artist” operates in a world where sound only exists in musical cue, where the tap of a dance shoe or flash of a camera makes no sound at all. It’s a tribute of kinds to classic French cinema (which is fitting, as its leading actor, Jean Dujardin, is French), rather than a golden-aged Hollywood, where the film takes place.

It’s the late 1920s, and the famous sign on the Hollywood hills says HOLLYWOODLAND, and the silver screen has become home to antics and heroes not seen since the rise of the talkies. A prime example is our leading act, George Valentin, (Dujardin, France’s “OSS 117” spy comedies), the epitome of suave and debonair. With his gleaming teeth, perfect hair and thin mustache, he’s nothing if not the picture of movie stardom. He’s adored by a loving public, and who is he to deny them the entertainment they seek? A lovable narcissist, he smiles and dances from one moment to the next, reveling in his perfect life with his talented dog and wife and co-star (Penelope Ann Miller).

What happens next comes as no surprise: A prideful man, George first falls into infatuation with an up-and-coming actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), then into the professional abyss when he stubbornly refuses to speak in movies. Abandoned by his wife and studio boss (John Goodman), and left with only his dog and chauffeur (James Cromwell), George falls into obscurity. It matters not to him: He still won’t speak.

“The Artist” shines, among other reasons, because of its mourning-like tribute to the movies of old, when melodramatic mugging and outlandish expressions captured the audience’s attention. There’s nods to pieces of cinematic masterpieces: music from “Vertigo’s” score, a scene inspired by “Citizen Kane” and a storyline similar to “A Star is Born.”

And while such cinema moments might overwhelm the average moviegoer, director Hazanavicius reproduces them in a way that suggests an update, rather than a replication. He doesn’t harness the full power of the silent age, but he evokes the glamour with stunning success.

A fantastic trip through a time long ago, “The Artist” plays to its strengths: At times too gimmickry (how else do you get the point across when you can’t speak?) and at times too charming for its own good, the power behind the film lies with its fascination of the art it idolizes. The pleasure arises from the direct effects of the film, even when such effects require complex displays of craft. It’s a movie of feeling, of natural energy, and it resonates on a core level.

Its greatest strengths, however, are its leads. Dujardin and Bejo go together in the most iconic of ways. You could, and do, see their faces on posters and marques across Hollywood. Their energy flows and feeds one another’s. Graceful performers, and talented dancers, their duo sequences alone make the film enjoyable.

What more is there to say? “The Artist,” which received five Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards, is simply a treat to cinephiles and blockbuster-addicted moviegoers alike. The movie itself may be less than spectacular, and in essence it’s a pastiche, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a reminder of all that’s great about cinema.

Five black-and-white stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

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