I was remiss in missing The Artist in the theater. I should have seen it earlier because I think it does a wonderful job of showing what I consider the single most interesting event in the history of film–the advent of sound. Utterly overnight, the biggest stars in the world became nobodies. Some transferred over pretty well, usually younger people rising in the industry like Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. Charlie Chaplin kept his character through a brilliant adjustment of a silent character to a sound era. W.C. Fields became an even bigger star since sound was so key to his act at its finest. Harold Lloyd became a prominent and well-respected Hollywood photographer. Buster Keaton became a drunk. Louise Brooks descended into being a consort for rich men. This transition was previously best portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. On this point, I’d argue The Artist is its equal, though the former is a greater artistic achievement.
The Artist itself is built upon air, with all the stops of the light entertainment of the 1920s (cute dog, dance scenes) with the production qualities and story-telling of the 2010s. Some of it doesn’t quite work as an imitation of the silent era, particularly the fake clips of the movies, with the exception of a Valentino-esque caper that has that choppy silent footage. The rest might be a bit too smooth in look, but this is an exceedingly minor point.
More successful is the fantastic scene when George Valentin, played by French star Jean Dujardin, realizes that sound is around the corner. He laughs it off at first, but in a dream sequence, everything has sound and those sounds are horrors to him. It’s a really great scene which is followed by his downfall and the rise of Peppy Miller, played by the Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo, who George helped get her start after a fortuitous run-in was pictured in the papers. John Goodman and James Cromwell have very solid parts. Michel Hazanavicius’ film may or may not have deserved all the Oscars but there’s no question that it’s inventiveness is refreshing and if it made a few people fans of silent films, he should be canonized.
Also, +1 for casting Freddie Rumsen from Mad Men as a cop who saves George from a fire.