In recent weeks, a few naysayers have come forward after “The Artist” arrived from Cannes on a raft of adulation for both its star Jean Dujardin, who picked up a Best Actor award on the Croisette, and as a crowdpleasing homage to the silent era. It’s hard to imagine anyone upset by an entertainment so innocent, though those that have take aim as its authenticity in depicting the rocky transition from silent films to talkies, a point that may be well-founded but largely irrelevant.
People already familiar with Dujardin’s previous collaborations with writer/director Michel Hazanivicius should know this in advance, having traversed the globe with the duo twice in the fun and frivolous “OSS: 117” series that was a sendup of 1960s spy films. With Dujardin once again cutting quite the profile in finely tailored tux, “The Artist” is really no different, except it’s stripped of color and dialogue. As it happens, these don’t deprive the film of pizzazz, but accentuate Hazanivicius’ considerable gift for visual storytelling and his love of the pure pleasures of cinema.
Making it look as effortless as leading man George Valentin (Dujardin), a matinee idol who can dance equally well with the ladies in his romantic pictures as he does with danger in his spy and swashbuckling adventures, Hazanivicius’ story pivots on a single peck on the cheek between the movie star and an aspiring one in Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who waits outside the premiere of his latest film with her autograph book in hand. The impromptu press opportunity results in a bit of notoriety for Peppy on the front page of Variety and proves to be a kiss of eventual death for the silent star, the former benefitting from the mystique surrounding her newfound fame and the latter on the verge of losing his, if he’s to reveal his voice during the rise of the talkies at the end of the 1920s.
It’s a slender thread to hang an entire movie on, but like the loyal, diminutive Jack Russell terrier that’s Valentin’s sidekick onscreen and off, “The Artist” is so eager to please, it’s nearly impossible to resist its charms. The same could be said for George’s effect on Peppy, which leaves little suspense in where the story will go even after George falls from his perch on the A-list and Peppy’s screen credit rises from the bottom to the top. Yet “The Artist” is like a confection from the dream factory where both are contract players, existing in a romantic world where studio chiefs chomp on cigars, a butler’s work for their celebrity liege is its own (otherwise unpaid) reward, and love, whether in the movies or not, is unconditional after just one kiss.
Although Dujardin can command the screen simply by raising his brow, the supporting cast around him is equally eye-catching. Hazanivicius fills out the Hollywoodland around his two French-born leads with an all-Anglo cast more notable for their expressive faces than their point of origin. John Goodman and James Cromwell play the aforementioned studio boss and butler, respectively, and criminally underused actors such as Joel Murray, Beth Grant, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller are all given a chance to shine.
That spirit of generosity may be the most admirable quality of “The Artist,” emphasis on spirit. While the depths of its world can be found mostly in the richness of the monochrome palette and Ludovic Bource’s grand orchestral score, “The Artist” glides on infusing every moment with the joy its filmmakers had to have felt and as a result, it’s a bit of celluloid comprised of the warm and fuzzies that passes it on to its audience.