The other night I saw The Artist- the delightful film by Michel Hazanavicius about a silent film actor's inability to deal with the advent of "talkies." It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a film in a theater- not that I don't go, though I haven't gone that often in the past year, it's just that I usually let someone else pick the film and more often than not I end up seeing movies geared toward a teen audience. Even the ones I had fair expectations for (Super 8, Drive, The Tree of Life) I felt were pretty awful. I didn't choose The Artist either, though it was my second choice (mine would have been My Week with Marilyn). So I was pleased it lived up to the accolades its receiving.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin- a Valentino-like actor at the pinnacle of his career until the head of his studio (John Goodman in an excellent supporting turn) decides silent films are a thing of the past and cancels further production of them. Valentin's ego pushes him to make his own film, which flops. From there, he goes into a decline resembling that of Hurstwood's in the Dreiser novel Sister Carrie. There's another parallel element in the film reminiscent of Dreiser's tale- as Valentin falls, a young woman who owes her career to him becomes a superstar. Thankfully, the beautiful Berenice Bejo (a glowing performance as the ridiculously named Peppy Miller) is no Carrie Meeber, and it's her continued interest in the fading actor which saves him in the end, despite his self-sabotaging pride.
Technically the film is gorgeous, shot in a rich black and white that makes the most of current technology. There are three fantastic set pieces: the first takes place on a tremendous staircase, replicating a common element found in 20's films; the second finds Miller alone in Valentin's dressing room- one of the most romantic scenes I've seen in a long time; and finally, Valentin's nightmare of living in a "talking world" is brilliantly crafted. The Artist is also buoyed by Dujardin's flawless performance and visual credibility in the lead role. I had a harder time accepting Bejo, who little resembles a star of the era, but in the end she won me over. There are unexpected cameos throughout the film, and James Cromwell's loyal driver is another noteworthy performance.
The music by Ludovic Bource is no small part of the film's success- at times referencing Wagner and Bernard Herrmann as well as hits and film scores from the era (Waxman and Korngold are two obvious inspirations), it consciously supports the film at every moment. When Hazanavicius finally breaks the silence it comes so perfectly I almost didn't notice it.
One quibble- the dance sequence at the end, with choreography reminiscent of the best of Astaire, was ably handled by Dujardin- so expertly in fact that Bejo's lesser abilities become a distraction. That's hardly a reason not to see it- but it is the only flaw I found in an otherwise perfect film.