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.