A black-and-white, almost entirely silent film about black-and-white silent films was always going to be a hard sell in 2012. It’s a credit to the quality of The Artist that it is actually doing quite well in cinemas and exceedingly well with the critics.
The film follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) heroic star of silent films for Kinograph Studios. We meet him in 1927 and he’s on top of the world – everyone’s favourite star. One day he meets aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and gives her a little tip which ensures her upward progress through the Hollywood ranks.
The introduction of ‘talkies’ doesn’t worry Valentin. He thinks they’re a fad and that no-one wants to hear actors speak. He’s quickly proved wrong, but his pride prevents him from trying the new way.
Talkies prove such a runaway success that there’s no room left for a silent film star and Valentin is soon washed up. Miller, on the other hand, was only to happy to make the adjustment and her success parallels Valentin’s falling star. However, she hasn’t forgotten the helping hand he gave her when she was nobody.
The two stars are wonderful. It must be quite a challenge for an actor, used to dialogue, to give a performance without any, but it’s never difficult to tell what is happening. American stars John Goodman and James Cromwell are good in supporting roles but there’s no major star-power here. It’s all about Dujardin and Bejo and they are more than up to the challenge.
It would have been easy to make this film in a modern style, with audible dialogue and even colour! The director, Michel Hazanavicius, is to be commended for choosing the more difficult route of making this in the style of the era. The film is almost entirely silent. We can see the characters speaking but only know exactly what they are saying when a dialogue screen with the text pops up. The old-fashioned approach manifests itself in more subtle ways, too. The cast and crew credits screens are like those seen in old films and they make use of out-of-fashion editing techniques like wipes. This is no pastiche but a loving recreation.