This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 6th February 2012
Have you heard the news? Black and white silent films are making a comeback, thanks to a courageous little motion picture called The Artist. The cast is French, American, English, but who cares? It doesn’t matter, because we don’t hear them speak; instead we are treated to a visually ecstatic, jolly romp from the late 1920s into the art deco beauty of a new era in cinema: the birth of the talkies.
George Valentin (the expressively eyebrowed and frankly dashing Jean Dujardin) is a silent-movie star in a golden age, adored by fans and disdained by his neglected wife. Suddenly the advent of talking pictures threatens to wipe the charming grin from his self-satisfied face as his mugging talents are rendered obsolete. As George’s fortunes fall, those of ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) swiftly rise.
True to form, and sometimes innovative in its reimagining of the medium, this movie about the movie business is in black and white, and relies on its characters’ physical performances to tell us what’s happening, with only a handful of intertitles to fill in the tricky bits of dialogue. The swirling musical score switches between jaunty comedy and swooning melodrama, as the particular scene demands. The film’s genius is in its ability to convey a full story by using well- cast, old-fashioned faces which say a thousand words (you don’t often see James Cromwell demoted to playing a manservant). Occasionally the audience’s lip-reading skills may deliver a laugh, but for the most part it’s the actors’ expressions we are hanging on.
There are clever methods of showing the passing of time (Peppy Miller’s name rises up the cast list as her star grows brighter) and a brilliant use of sound to illustrate George’s growing terror of the brave new world.
Modern-day audiences need not shy away. The Artist is nothing short of delightful, a throwback to simpler film-making where there is no need for witty one-liners, and a pet dog’s antics can make you laugh out loud.