Movie Review: The Artist

The best film I’ve seen in a long time was black-and-white and (mostly) silent. You might think those adjectives apply only to movies made before the 1930s, but this one was created and released in theaters in 2011. Its endearing characters and compelling plot have won over critics and audiences alike, making a strong case for the continued relevance and interest of silent films.

The Artist tells the story of two actors navigating the transition between silent films and talkies. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is an older star on his way out, too stubborn to transition to talking pictures, which he insists are a fad. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) becomes an actress because of an encounter with George, but her star waxes as his wanes. Jealousy, love, and pride define their relationship over the course of the film. The plot is often humorous, but also moving. George’s financial and professional frustrations are profound and touching, as is Peppy’s affection for George.

The Artist is essentially a love letter to the film industry. It frequently references scenes and music from classics and breaks the fourth wall to cleverly explore the medium of film and the question of dialogue in films. In one scene, the objects around George begin to make sounds, but he remains silent despite his efforts to scream. The scene coyly acknowledges the presence of the audience—of course, George should not actually be startled that setting a glass down on a table makes a sound, because it always does and it is only the limitation of the film medium that usually prevents the audience from hearing that sound too. This breaking of the fourth wall increases the scene’s comedic effect without detracting from our sympathy with George’s terror at being stuck in a silent world.

The acting in The Artist is perfectly suited to a modern silent film. The actors use the techniques, gestures, and facial expressions common to the silent-film era, when visual cues had to be more obvious to present a story despite the absence of dialogue. But except in certain film-within-the-film scenes, these techniques are used moderately enough that they don’t seem jarring to modern audiences, who are accustomed to understated acting.

Old movie buffs will delight in the Easter eggs scattered throughout, but I suspect almost anyone who attends will enjoy The Artist. It will leave you with tears in your eyes and new appreciation for the golden age of American cinema.

Still playing in Newton, Dedham, Framingham, and Boston.

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