George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, OSS 117: Lost in Rio) is the biggest star in silent films. At the dawn of talkies, he helps a talented young woman named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Prey) break into the pictures and they barely manage not to have an affair while George’s wife displays nothing but boredom and contempt for him. As Peppy’s star rises in the talkies, George sinks his fortune into one last grandiose silent film which leaves him broke and out of work. As George has a hard time finding his footing in the brave new world of talking pictures, Peppy helps him from the sidelines while trying to convince a tough studio head (John Goodman, Red State) to give him another shot.
The Artist is a beautiful experiment made for people who love movies and the history of the moving picture business. They did not temper this for today’s audiences in any way. It was shot without sync sound in black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio. That’s a square, folks. Get the old TV out of the basement if you don’t want to watch this with black bars on the left and right sides of the screen. The performances are elegant throwbacks to BIG acting, when everything was done with big gestures and dazzling smiles played directly and unapologetically to the camera. It’s charming, it’s nostalgic, and now that video stores are going out of business and we wait to see if anyone is going to digitize the Chaplins, Fairbanks, and Pickfords for streaming access, it’s pretty much a goodbye kiss to the people who inspired the people who inspired the people who inspire us.
It’s a movie about an industry facing a drastic changing of the guard made using the earliest techniques of the medium and interpreted for an industry who—with the celluloid versus digital debate—is currently facing a drastic changing of the guard. It’s like the Pulitzer committee getting together and patting a guy on the back for writing a novel with a quill and ink. Although it’s a very well made picture and a pleasure to experience, its existence as a symbol is probably more effective than its entertainment value. When George tears his movies out of their film cans and sets fire to the whole works in a fit of despair before reaching in to save just one canister, it’s pretty clear where this flick stands on film preservation, but the ultimate message, that talented performers never go out of style despite the evolution of technology, is one well worth preserving.
My personal opinion: If you love film history, you should experience this in the theater, just to have headed to a new silent picture once in your life. Everybody else can catch it on Netflix and make up their own dialogue.
—Words by Jake Jarvi