Playing as homage to a lost period in the film industry, this Star is Born-esque look at the onset of the sound era, done in pin-sharp black and white and an aspect ratio that hearkens back to the smaller screened world of pre-Cinemascope Hollywood, and made as, for all intents and purposes, an actual silent film, The Artist, directed by the charmingly quaint French-born auteur Michel Hazanavicius (now there is an ironic mouthful), and starring French Douglas Fairbanks look-a-like Jean Dujardin in its titular central role, is a quite stunning film to look at - which I suppose is the best thing going for a silent movie.
Granted, the story may leave a bit to be desired - it has been done to death (then again, it is an homage after all) - but when taken as purely visual (though the score, a slew of sound effects and a handful of spoken dialogue give it an audible nuance as well) and as a sort of love story to a time long lost, the film can be a thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience - and damn can Hazanavicius, along with cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, paint a pretty picture in the shadows and lights of black and white.
Full of stunning shots (many influenced by the same German Expressionists that gave Welles and other Hollywood auteurs their legendary looks) and beautifully stylized set pieces, The Artist need not rely on such trivialities as script and story, for in the end, it is the panache that counts. Well, that and the ability to transit from the silent era to the sound era as Dujardin's dashing swashbuckler George Valentin must do in the film. The mostly unknown French actor (his success here - an Oscar nod is imminent - may finally get the actor's Little White Lies its long overdue US release) gives a bravura performance as this Douglas Fairbanks inspired (a bit of Rudolph Valentino may be in there too) work of silent era machismo, and it is this performance that acts as the proverbial heart and soul of the film.
But Dujardin is not alone here. Bérénice Bejo, an even lesser known Argentinian actress (and not so coincidentally, the director's wife), plays starlet Peppy Miller (with a career trajectory that most resembles a precode Joan Crawford), the Esther Blodgett to Dujardin's Norman Maine (sans the abusive nature of the latter). We also get a surprisingly svelte John Goodman (at least svelte by John Goodman standards) as the big boss of the studio, James Cromwell as Valentin's more than devoted man servant, and of course, Uggie as Jack the Dog, faithful companion to the big star and the has been Valentin both. Incidentally, while Dujardin was taking home the Best Actor award at Cannes, Uggie was awarded the coveted Palm Dog (and I am not making this up).
So even if the story is not the thing legends are made of (ironic considering the legendary status of such a so often told story), the look and feel of the film, along with the near constant homage to cinematic history - everyone from Hitchcock to Lang to Lubitsch and Murnau, to Singin' in the Rain (even Mary Pickford's house stands in for Peppy's) - more than makes up for any perceived (and they may be just that) shortcomings. Stylish and giddily melodramatic (the silent era melodrama was Hazanavicius' biggest single influence), The Artist may only be a replicate of the edge of the silent era, (sadly we cannot bring back the past - they certainly do not make them like they used to) but what a hell of a wallop it packs into its loving homagist punch.