With Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Rated PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture). 100 minutes.
Do you ever find yourself wanting a movie that doesn’t insult your intelligence, doesn’t overwhelm you with special effects, and leaves you happier than when you came in? THE ARTIST is that movie. As word-of-mouth gets going on it, you’re going to be hearing a lot about it, if not telling your family and friends about it yourself. This is the feel-good movie of the year and that’s meant as praise, not a putdown.
First, however, you’re going to have to wrap your mind around a few things. First, it’s in black-and-white. Second, it’s silent, although there is a musical track. Third, you’ve probably never heard of the two leads, although you’ll recognize several people in the supporting cast. Just go with it, and you’ll find this is one of the best films of 2011.
The movie starts in 1927 in Hollywood, at the dawn of the sound era. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the biggest movies stars, playing the hero in a series of dramatic adventures. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is a would-be actress looking for her break into the movies. At a premiere she accidentally stumbles into Valentin, her idol, and gets discovered. Soon she’s in the movies herself.
This is a story that has been told many times before, usually tragically. George’s career fades away with the advent of sound, and if this was “A Star Is Born” he’d end up a suicide. Peppy’s career takes off and if this was “All About Eve” she’d be clawing her way to the top over the bodies of others. “The Artist,” however, has a different agenda. George has some rough times ahead and Peppy is ambitious, but they are both good people who know the secret of stardom. Sure, the mansions and servants and fame are nice, but what makes both these characters so likeable is that first and foremost they want to entertain. Yes, they want the adulation of the audience but they want filmgoers to have had such a good time that they can’t help but cheer the stars.
Watch Dujardin dance and strut across the stage following the premiere of his latest movie at the start of “The Artist.” Yes, he’s full of himself. However, he’s also full of joy and he seems to be saying that he’s having a great time and he hopes the audience has had a great time as well. If egomania could be generous, it would look like Dujardin does here.
Likewise, Peppy never forgets to whom she owes her success and that gratitude distinguishes her from similar but self-absorbed characters. It leads to a Hollywood happy ending that will leave many viewers saying that they didn’t know they made them like that anymore. “The Artist” is about the joy of finding your life’s work and the tragedy of having it taken away. Yet it’s also people remembering who helped them rather than pretending they did it all themselves, and the discovery that it’s never too late to adapt to a changing world.
“The Artist” is a delight, already racking up several critics’ awards (including Best Picture from the Boston Society of Film Critics) and is being touted as an Oscar contender. In a lackluster year at the movies, two films – “The Artist” and “Hugo” – remind us of why we fell in love with the movies in the first place.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.