In an age of ceiling-to-floor IMAX 3D blockbusters, it takes serious guts to front $15 million for a silent black-and-white melodrama. Yet the producers of The Artist have financed both a box office and an artistic success.
A cinematic love letter to Hollywood's silent era, The Artist depicts the fall of fictional silent film legend George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who regards the "talkies" as a passing fad, and the concurrent rise of his protégé, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young woman Valentin bumps into on the street and helps turn into a star.
Three major elements factor into the film's success. First, the restrained, sometimes whimsical, yet deeply moving love story that develops between the two leads easily draws the viewer in. Valentin's devotion to his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), who leaves him for selfish reasons, makes his character even more endearing.
Second, the inherent nature of a silent film forces its director to pay more attention to the "show, don't tell" maxim. Director Michel Hazanavicius does a brilliant job in staging and framing each scene in such a way as to minimize the need for intertitles.
Lastly, a silent film, especially a love story, cannot work without actors who have the capacity to communicate their thoughts and feelings with a single look. Dujardin and Bejo both deliver award-worthy performances, with Dujardin recalling silent era stars Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks and Bejo easily stepping into the spunky "America's sweetheart" persona. The supporting American cast of John Goodman as a hardnosed studio head and James Cromwell as Valentin's selfless chauffeur also emote effectively.
Theatergoers may find the black bars on both sides of the screen somewhat annoying since Hazanavicius presents The Artist in the "fullscreen" 1.33:1 aspect ratio that old silent films would have used. The film earns a PG-13 rating for a disturbing image and a crude gesture, and it also includes a single profanity on an intertitle.
At times light and fluffy, other times touchingly sentimental, The Artist is a throwback in all the best ways to the earnest, unaffected love stories of classic Hollywood.