In 1929, silent film star Lillian Gish declared the cinema "a new Esperanto," or a new artificial language that combined aspects of all cultures. At that point, Gish was most famous for playing waifish damsels in D.W. Griffith's early epics like "Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Broken Blossoms" (1919), but she was able nevertheless to recognize how the language of film could be understood by all.
Pantomime is, arguably, the earliest form of human communication, and it is also the main feature of silent film—people in the United States as well as in China, Russia and Brazil all enjoy fat men falling down stairs. But Gish also lamented that film was likely to abandon its base emotional universality of laughs and sobs for the inaccessible peak of "high art." What a pity.
When the film starts to roll in "The Artist" (2011, directed by Michael Hazanavicius), you may notice a few differences from the typical theater experience: the frame is slightly boxier (4:3 instead of the usual 1:1.85), the picture is black and white, and there is no spoken dialogue. With a few minor exceptions, "The Artist" could have easily been produced in the same era it portrays—Gish's Hollywood in the twilight of the silent era, circa 1930. Not since Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" (1976) has a major studio picture staked itself on such antiquated technology, but "The Artist" is only the more delightful for it.
The film follows actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he plummets from silent-film megastar to washed-up has-been after the advent of sound in the cinema. Valentin once had the town eating out of his hand and was able to revel in the glow of his adoring fans, but his stubborn refusal to change with the times soon has him out of a job, a wife, and a home.
Meanwhile, young starlet Peppy Miller's (Bérénice Bejo) meteoric rise from backup dancer to leading lady comes with the same intensity as Valentin's fall. As George and his faithful dog reach rock bottom, it seems nothing will ever reignite the light in this fading star.
John Goodman and James Cromwell also deliver memorable performances as George's hotheaded studio executive and his devoted chauffeur, respectively.
Film history fans will certainly appreciate Hazanavicius' obsession with early Hollywood glamour. George is almost certainly a stand-in for the brawny 1920s American star Douglas Fairbanks—especially given how one scene sees Dujardin's face superimposed on Fairbanks' body from one of the star's early pictures. Bejo's boisterous flapper Peppy recalls the vaudeville heritage of the first cinema actors with her cheap, but nonetheless charming, sight gags and dance numbers. Even the film's orchestral soundtrack runs the gamut from Joplin-esque jazz hall tunes, to Puccini arias, to a track lifted from Bernard Herrmann's iconic score for Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958).
Though a love letter to Hollywood's bygone era, the film was made by a French director and a primarily French cast and crew. Many sequences even recall the early whimsy of the early French avant-garde work of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, but Hazanavicius' love and appreciation for the iconic American era of silent film is that of an unjaded outsider. It's as if his vision of the United States is made up only of the movies themselves.
"The Artist" is far from the high art that Lish scorned. Instead, it is an earnest and unpretentious melodrama that is at times times so corny that even George's dog feels the need to cover his eyes—but that's not a negative critique. Hazanavicius is well-aware that his film is unabashed homage and toes that line to perfection. I'd be hard pressed to pick out a single fault in the picture as a whole. Yet as homage, and as a silent that aims for universal emotional appeal, "The Artist" never really says or does anything of note. A laugh or a sob may be universally understood, but for that same reason they are unable to achieve any semblance of depth. As perfectly constructed as it may be, "The Artist" reaches no higher than pure escapism.
And as I'm sure Hazanavicius would counter, isn't escapism why we go to the movies in the first place?
"The Artist" beings a weeklong run today at Eveningstar Cinema.