The Artist may be the ultimate clever curio. It’s a black-and-white silent film, made in a lovingly exact imitation of the primitive technical style — and elemental emotional sincerity — of a 1920s title-card melodrama. Written and directed by the French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (though the movie is in English and set in Hollywood), The Artist is delightfully old-fashioned, but it’s also poppingly contemporary, with a puckish spark of self-awareness. As it opens, we’re watching an audience watch a silent adventure film, and in a funny way we spend the rest of the movie watching ourselves get swept up in conventions we can see through.
The hero, George Valentin, is a silent-film superstar who is sitting on top of the world. He’s played by the wonderful Jean Dujardin, who functions as a living, breathing silver-screen artifact: He resembles Gene Kelly, but with an absurdly rousing sunbeam of a smile that marks him as a wholesome rogue in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. At his latest premiere, Valentin is being interviewed when a fan from the surrounding throng spills onto the sidewalk and interrupts his photo op. Her name is Peppy Miller, and she’s played by Bérénice Bejo, who’s quite an image herself, gorgeous and wide-eyed, like Parker Posey fused with Charlie Chaplin. Peppy’s accidental brush with fame gets caught by the papers, which lands her a bit part in George’s next picture (their dance scene carries a hint of romantic destiny). This leads her to bigger and bigger roles, until she is skyrocketing to stardom.
And Valentin? His golden career is about to hit a brick wall: namely, the birth of talking pictures. In the new era, people want new stars, and Valentin finds himself an overnight washout. As his already icy wife leaves him and the stock market crashes, The Artist pays homage to silent films like Sunrise in which good people meet pitfalls of degradation that can potentially bedevil all of us. The movie, like a silent Star Is Born, counterpoints George’s descent and Peppy’s rise, though the affection between them is anything but spent. I do wish that the last act were truly wrenching instead of just mildly touching. Yet the ending is a madly exhilarating surprise. Days after I saw The Artist, I was still thinking (and grinning) about it, because the movie’s real romance is the one between us, the jaded 21st-century audience, and the mechanical innocence of old movies, which here becomes new again. A-