With The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius stretches a feather-light gimmick to feature-length. The writer-director's tribute to silent movies begins with a movie buff's tongue-in-cheek premise: What if we made a silent movie about the silent film era, where the stars all act the same way in their real lives as they do in their film-within-a-film movies?
It all begins at the end of Hollywood's silent film era, as star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and aspiring starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) meet cute and fall for each other. The rest of the movie chronicles their long journey to a happy ending while their careers careen in opposite directions as he laughs off the talkies as a fad, fading into impoverished obscurity, while she embraces the new technology and becomes one of its biggest stars.
The two mug like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, exaggerating the already extreme expressions and gestures employed by most of the stars of that era. George flashes his blindingly white grin on the red carpet like Dudley Do-Right, and Peppy's signature move—on screen and off—is a two-fingered whistle followed by a blown kiss. But then everyone in this world overacts, even the studio head (John Goodman) who bellows things like "the public is never wrong!" and the audience members who radiate oversized emotion at a screening, some clapping their hands to their cheeks in amazement.
The best thing about The Artist is its look. The crisply lit black-and-white photography, anti-panoramic 4x3 aspect ratio, periodic iris cuts, and the clearly phony painted backdrops in some of the film-within-a-film scenes all evoke the silent-film era. So do the distinctive faces and forms of supporting players like James Cromwell as George's faithful manservant, Ken Davitian as a pawnshop owner, and Goodman's blustering studio chief.
Dujardin, whose mustache, piano-key smile, and heroic poses make him look like a cross between Gene Kelly and John Gilbert, also channels Douglas Fairbanks and Fred Astaire, among others. Peppy is the quintessential perky, spunky, beautiful but sexless early-American movie heroine, while the icy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) who ditches George on his way down evokes the grim, lace-collared, straw-man matriarchs played by the likes of Esther Dale when the jazz babies were sending up Victorian values. Even the adoring Jack Russell terrier that sticks like a burr to George is a doppelganger for the dog who played Asta in the Thin Man movies.
The Artist is as much about what we know (or think we know) about how those movies were made as it is about the movies themselves. We laugh knowingly when a series of credits illustrates Peppy's rise, starting with one that misspells her name at the bottom of a long roll, and the story of George's John Gilbert-like descent bangs out a comfortingly familiar chord.
But there's something a little disingenuous about the whole thing, which feels like a spoof masquerading as a tribute. Singin' in the Rain covers similar ground, looking at how careers rose or fell when Hollywood discovered sound, but it's upfront about its attitude toward the mugging that was rampant in the silent era, portraying it as loveable but laughable. In The Artist, Peppy voices that sentiment (in title cards) and then apologizes for it, saying she didn't really mean it, but why not? Watch a truly great actor in one of the truly great films of the silent era—John Barrymore in Don Juan, Buster Keaton in just about anything—and you'll see no mugging or posturing or winking or two-fingered whistles, just comedy, tragedy, and raw human emotion.
The Artist could have used a few more little bits of business like the one where Peppy fondles George's jacket, putting her arm through one sleeve and then around her own waist to pretend that he's holding her. It also could have used a lot fewer scenes that tell us things we already know in not-clever-enough ways, like the recurring bit where George's wife defaces pictures of him, adding florid mustaches and goofy glasses. Instead, it relies too much on the charm of its leads, making their exaggerated gestures feel a bit desperate at times.
This might have made a lovely 15- or 20-minute short, if anyone out there would fund such a thing. But at 100 minutes, it's a joke stretched a little too thin.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.