Am I dreaming? I just walked out of a movie theater that had more people in attendance than any I’ve been in all year (save Harry Potter at midnight). The audience refused to talk throughout the 100-minute-long picture. We hesitantly munched our popcorn, or opened our candy, afraid to disturb the tranquil silence which had descended upon us. We laughed in unison, gasped together, and when the lights came back up, all of us, and I mean all, applauded. I just saw a silent film with more than a hundred people and all of them loved it more than I’ve ever seen an audience love any movie, including the final installment to the largest franchise in movie history. I just saw The Artist.
The Artist is one of a handful of love letters to cinema this year (the others include Hugo, The Strange Case of Angelica, Drive, Paul, Super 8), but its approach is a little more direct: it is made (almost) entirely in the style of a silent film, specifically one from 1920’s Hollywood. A mix of Singin in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, The Artist is in practice what Hugo only was in theory – evidence that silent films live.
The Artist centers around George Valentin, one of the biggest stars in silent Hollywood, who is forced to speak or die in the burgeoning world of sound. It’s hard to imagine what a revolution the sound picture was at the time, except to compare it to the wave of 3-D films in our present. “Talkies” began as a gimmick, only later becoming an art. Sound would only sully the perfection of the image, or so many silent artists believed. In that light, Valentin’s stubborn refusal to change becomes a signifier of his commitment to his work.
On the set of what would be his last completed film, Valentin meets Peppy Miller, a comely nobody, with whom he shares a certain attraction after a red carpet mishap. After a momentary piece of advice, they do not meet again for a few years, and their paths diverge considerably: her star waxing as his wanes.
What follows is surprising somewhat for a movie consistently billed as a silent comedy. Jean Dujardin as Valentin is at his best here as he depicts a man deprived of his raison d’etre, a man who has fallen from grace, both in the eyes of his fans and in his own.
I have no intentions of convincing you that this film is anything other than a comedy, though. It revels in the slapstick and absurd, but in a way that is defiantly “silent.” At first we even laugh at the (authentic) mannerisms that come with silent film acting – which is half the point. It seduces us into letting it be silent, by being utterly silly, and then once it has us, it never lets go.
I’m a guy who likes silent films, so perhaps I have a predisposition to a film like this. As I was leaving, though, I realized that the thing I loved most about the film was not the spot on acting; it wasn’t the cinematography or the obscure movie references. Rather, the greatest part about watching this was actually watching The Artist with an audience who loved it as much as I did.
I have always scoffed at critics who mention in their review of a certain movie that it “restores their faith in movies.” The way I figure, if they have lost their faith, they have no business writing reviews. But in a year that I have found endlessly surprising, consistently incredible, and somewhat dizzying with regard to the sheer number of great films released, The Artist is proof that people actually do like to watch good movies. I realized almost at the same time that I absolutely loved every minute of this film and that everyone else did, too. I feel lucky to have been a part of that brief community. For something under two hours we lived and loved, we laughed and cried, we cheered, all of it together. And you know what? It honestly restored my faith in movies.