‘The Artist’ movie review: Oscar winner a joyful ode to silent-era Hollywood

The Artist – a (mostly) silent film set during the dawn of the sound era in Hollywood – took the 2011 awards season by storm, ending up with 10 Oscar nominations, second only to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which also celebrates cinema’s silent era). The Artist is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture, and if it wins, it will be the first – and only – silent film since 1927’s Wings to do so.

That’s no small feat. Mainstream audiences will undoubtedly greet The Artist with trepidation; some may have never seen a silent picture. But The Artist is destined to break through those boundaries, and deserves all the accolades that have been thrown its way; a tender, heartwarming, and ultimately poignant throwback to a bygone era, it does so much more without dialogue than most films do with it.

French comedian Jean Dujardin stars as silent star George Valentin, who, in 1927, is at the top of his game. In the film’s opening scene, the cast and crew of his latest film waits nervously backstage as the film unspools in front of a packed theater at the premiere. A word hasn’t yet been mouthed; the orchestra fades out as the film comes to an end. Silence. I love how we know the theater has burst into applause: by the joyous reaction of Dujardin and the crew.

Yes, this really is a silent movie, and it’s not afraid to have some fun with technique.

But there’s darkness on the horizon: the advent of sound, which is hailed as the next big thing. Valentin laughs it off after seeing a demo reel, and two years later he splits from producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), who announces the end of silent productions. While the studios churn out talking pictures, Valentin self-finances one last silent. Combine this with the stock market crash of 1929, and troubles at home with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and things aren’t looking too good for George.

Contrasted with Valentin’s fall is the rise of young upstart Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), one of the “fresh faces” of sound cinema, a girl Valentin gave a break to when she was an extra on one of his projects. She’s kept a quiet admiration for Valentin over the years, and is one of the few in attendance at his latest film.

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius deserves a lot of credit for weaving the silent film premise into his story, and not just using it as a gimmick. The director and much of his crew – including stars Dujardin and Bejo, composer Ludovic Bource, and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman – previously collaborated on the OSS 117 spy comedies. But The Artist is lightning in a bottle.

Dujardin and Bejo are gloriously enigmatic silent performers, and a lot of fun to watch. There’s not as much mugging from the supporting cast, but Goodman makes for a memorable cigar-chomping producer, and James Cromwell is a sympathetic chauffeur. But The Artist is stolen by Valentin’s little Jack Russell Terrier, played by Uggie, who recently picked up a Pawscar for his work.

Of course, despite being a “silent” film, sound plays a vital role in the film. The orchestral soundtrack by Bource is wonderful, changing style and tone right alongside the narrative; the unexpected vocals of Rose Murphy’s rendition of Pennies from Heaven play out over a key montage, and Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo score is memorably repurposed in a climactic scene.

Sticking with the period theme, Schiffman’s exceptional black & white, 1.33:1 cinematography makes terrific use of the old Academy ratio.

I loved this film. So few contemporary pictures capture the fantasy, the innocence, the feel-good nature of what cinema used to be; this one feels as if it were plucked from 1929. The Artist is one of the best films of 2011, and my favorite among the nine nominated for Best Picture.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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