In 1927, the world of Motion Pictures was one of exuberant gestures, glaring and intense stares, and deeply felt reaction shots.  They were silent, but boisterous with enigmatic and larger than life personalities, emoting at their highest decibel, to the delight of captivated audiences.  But it was also the year that film broke the sound barrier, creating a rift in the motion picture community that would effectively change the movie-going experience forever, leaving a host of A-list silent stars in its wake.

Hollywoodland, as it was called back then, was filled with numerous silent movie stars: the angelic Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, the comical geniuses, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the debonair, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.  These names are immortalized in the white on grey letters of the opening credits, and it is this familiar style of opening credit that transports us back to 1927 in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

This film opens very self-consciously:  we are watching the projection of the latest silent film starring George Valentin, played eloquently by Jean Dujardin. Hazanavicius carefully peels back each layer of the film within a film, playing in a theater, as you sit in a theater watching a film.  We get the message  – that we are peeling back history, but one that is very presently with us.

Valentin is every bit the showman and celebrity that he appears to be on screen:  His glimmering smile, his fanciful two-step, his command of attention from adoring fans, these characteristics extend well beyond the frame of lens and seep into real life. The most unique thing about George is his ability to render everyone around him speechless with expression and reaction alone – he never needs to speak a word.  And it is this fact, or in some cases flaw, that defines him.

Despite his success in films, his mansion, his lovely wife, and his faithful dog and co-star, George’s smile is no match for the indomitable force of sound in film.  And when Al Zimmer, the studio head of Kinograph pictures, introduces George to the future of motion pictures by showing him a rough cut of the studio’s new “talkie”, George’s rejection of it kick starts his career’s downward spiral into the silent unknown.

In direct contrast, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is a fresh new face, full of flapper sass, with gumption galore.  Her flirtatious nature lands her a front page exclusive on the cover of Variety, and catches the eye of George.  She is everything he is not – young, ambitious, fearless.  Life is for the taking, and she has no intention of leaving anything behind.  It is her willingness to take on whatever comes next that catapults her out of the silence, and into the spotlight of the “talkies”.

The entire film is delicately balanced on these two polar opposites, and the elegant dance of ups and downs between George and Peppy is captured quite poetically in four different takes of their first picture together.  George, “mugging” his way through a crowded room, bumps into Peppy.  She abandons her partner and turns to him.  They dance, and the chemistry is smoldering.   That is the magic of movies – two people in a gentle dance of light and shadow.

This film is a love story between the old and the new, between what is, and what will become. Hazanavicius reminds us of where we have come from as a way of directing our attention to where we are going – namely, he has removed all of the sound effects, CGI, the technology of movies to show us (remind us) of why we fell in love with moving pictures to begin with.  The Artist is homage to authentic filmmaking, be it passionate, desperate attempts to connect with an audience emotionally.  This is a dogged, blatant attempt to shout at the audience to look past the bullshit that the new has brought into theaters and remember a time and place when emotion and depth of character reigned supreme.

Making a 100-minute silent film shot entirely in black and white is an incredible undertaking, which I must admit, is a little slow and drawn out at times.  For as much as I love the ambition of the picture, it is dogged in its attempt to get its point across.  Like George, it’s the sin of pride that leads to its undoing.  The most poignant moment in the film comes with a break in the silence, and it is that unraveling that is the most interesting and holds the most potential for the advancement of the narrative. It would have been interesting to see that technique carried out through the remainder of the film, leaving only our protagonist in silence – and I think it would have illustrated his point much more eloquently, but alas Hazanavicius revoked our privileges and stubbornly locked us in silence again. The film suffers for it, and eventually loses itself towards the end.

The Artist is a very interesting take on issues of modernity in modern cinema.  There is always something next, something new and cutting edge.  In our experience of the new, the old falls by the wayside and is forgotten.  And in step with the films he is paying homage to, there must be a twist at the end that no one sees coming, that finds a way to bring the two oppositions together in one big happy ending.   What you are left with is a solid appreciation of talent, which never gets old, never retires, and is irreplaceable.  A true artist, after all, transcends medium, and simply is.

Writer’s Note:  This review is the most direct read of the film, but there are many other aspects that can be discussed, and should be.  One can argue that this film is a direct comment on the fact that most film actors these days do quite a bit of “mugging” and no real acting.  They simply stand there are look pretty.  Contrary to that, there is the concept of the actor’s “voice”, and why he is so reluctant to use his, which is cultural political, and harks back to race in film, and the perceptions of masculinity and speaking.  Needless to say, there is a lot that can be said about this film and what it represents, and it should be discussed and studied as a cultural artifact – which is so desperately hopes to become.  Time will tell.