Jean Dujardin has a face for silent movies. It just comes down to that smile: It’s so welcoming, so open, so expansive (I swear you can see every last one of his molars) that your heart melts a bit when you see it. You want to be his friend. Bérénice Bejo has got a wonderfully expressive face, too. When she bites her lip in a moment of stress, you furrow your brow with concern at the exact same moment. It’s like her face and your face are connected by invisible strings; when she smiles, you smile, too. Sadly, the two stars were born almost a century too late to make their fortunes as Hollywood mimes, which is why it’s such a relief to see they finally get their chance at silent-film-star greatness in The Artist.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent-film star in 1927 Hollywoodland who is probably the most famous man in the world. In an opening scene set at a film premiere, he basks in the audience’s applause and adulation for way too long. He capers and grins and feigns humility (badly), and if it were anyone else, your hate for his smarmy self-appreciation would know no bounds. But—that smile! You can’t help but love Valentin. Sure, he’s almost impossibly needy, but shucks, who hasn’t lingered on a compliment for a little too long?
By the end of the crowd-sourced masturbation session that is Valentin’s extended bow—it seriously seems like it goes on forever—you’ve already forgotten that The Artist is a silent movie. That’s maybe the single most impressive feat of moviemaking magic in a movie packed with tributes to the power of film. As economically as possible, The Artist teaches its audience how to watch a silent movie. The interpretation of comically broad gestures and intent lip-reading become second nature to filmgoers more accustomed to enduring torrents of expository dialogue raining down from the screen like a mudslide.
As soon as we acquaint ourselves with the primitive filmmaking language, we watch as the culture that spawned it breathes its last breath. An aspiring young actress named Peppy Miller falls into Valentin’s life, and he helps to make her a star. Soon enough, the talkies are on the march, and Valentin is crushed by the wave of new talent led by Miller, who eclipses him in almost every way. The resulting film is a charming tribute to old Hollywood, embracing even its ego, excess, and crude stereotyping. The soundtrack is hammy in just the right way, enhancing the wordless pathos and comedy to the point where you often forget there’s no dialogue. The supporting cast (including John Goodman as a bellowing, belligerent studio head and James Cromwell as a tragically faithful manservant) is as intelligently selected as the leads.
Even more than modern movies, the key to a great silent film is in its loving attention to detail, and The Artist reflects that dutiful lover’s sense of attention in every shot. From a dusty room in which Valentin is forced to confront his past in the form of artifacts shrouded in cloths like ghosts, to a callback to classic Rin Tin Tin moments featuring a heroic cinematic pooch, to a fleeting romantic moment on a staircase, The Artist is constructed with an encyclopedic knowledge of silent film. Rather than wallowing in its slavish devotion to days of yore, it happily goes about setting up indelible moments of its own. Even as The Artistbasks in the glory of the past, it charms the audience on its own terms. It’s the rare kind of movie that leaves you grinning like an idiot.