Silence is golden in The Artist, a brilliantly playful homage to '20s and '30s Hollywood that's so ripe with invention it goes beyond the old school. It's not entirely silent either, with French director Michel Hazanavicius literally (and very wittily) tapping into the innermost fears of silent movie star George Valentin as the age of the talkies begins to dawn.
Jean Dujardin is totally luminescent in that role, echoing Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn in his mannerisms yet with an uncanny resemblance to Gene Kelly. As the cantankerous studio boss, John Goodman evokes the spirit of Oliver Hardy.
Valentin is a byword for vanity at first, as the star attends the premiere of his latest romantic adventure and makes another performance out of soaking up the applause. He has legions of female admirers too, including Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who breaks through the cordon and manages to get her picture taken with him.
She's just the sort of sassy flapper you'd expect to see in a musical comedy of the era and Bejo adds a girlish twinkle that sets her apart in a dance audition for Valentin's next film. It's only a walk-on role, but in a wonderfully funny turn by Dujardin, it's Valentin who keeps spoiling the takes. Very obviously, Peppy has turned his head.
It's a carefully-choreographed romance between Peppy and Valentin, all coy gestures and wistful glances, but Valentin is married to a fading siren and Peppy is being groomed for stardom by jowl-flapping honcho Al Zimmer (Goodman). As her star ascends, Valentin hits the skids, refusing to talk on screen and spoil the mystique.
But behind the heroic posture, we're shown Valentin's fears and insecurities, sometimes to comic effect (as in the startling use of sound effects) and sometimes with a tragic bent as Valentin contemplates suicide. Of course, he's just being theatrical and is all the more endearing for that; breaking a smile when his dog sends him up with a dramatic roll-over.
Certainly, Hazanavicius and Dujardin have lots of fun with the affectations of silent cinema (following their French twist on Bond in OSS 117), but the gags are crafted with such a loving eye for detail that it ranks above idle spoof.
Even the slapstick moments are graced with a higher wit and cleverly work to reveal the things that are left unspoken between the players. As well as that repressed longing between Valentin and Peppy, the relationship between Valentin and his doting butler Clifton (James Cromwell) is thoroughly enchanting.
A scene where Clifton prepares a meal for Valentin within the confines of a studio apartment plays like Sunset Boulevard meets a Morecambe and Wise sketch. It's one of many moments of pure cinematic joy. The overall effect is magical. If the technology allowed, we would shout it from the rooftops: you must see this film!
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