All films are illusions. "The Artist" pulls off the wonderful trick of pretending that it's film from the late 1920s, the end of the silent era of Hollywood. It's in black in white, presented in the old 4:3 aspect ratio, and silent - only title cards fill in the most important bits of dialogue. But more than that, it recreates the look and the feel of those old Hollywood classics to an astonishing degree. Not only are there old cars in the streets and storefronts with vintage lettering on the windows, but the style of the acting and the way the shots are composed and edited all hearken back to that earlier era. However, "The Artist" is not a silent film in the strictest sense, because it doesn't play by the rules of one. It uses technology and techniques that were not available during the '20s, and contains other inconsistencies that I will not detail, because they are deliberate and should not be spoiled.
It is more accurate to say that "The Artist" is a film that uses all these old techniques to celebrate the lost art of silent filmmaking, and serve as an argument for its value. The film is very self-aware, highlighting many little storytelling tricks that the sound era did away with, showing how they're still as effective as ever. The plot is pure melodrama, and uniquely well suited to the whole conceit. We follow the career of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular silent film star, who has a chance romantic encounter with a young would-be actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Then the sound era comes along and brings George to ruin, while Peppy becomes a headliner. However, Peppy still loves George, and fights to save him from obscurity and despair. Really, how much more meta can you get?
I'd never seen a silent film in a theater before, and watching "The Artist" on the big screen was extraordinary. You don't realize how much of a distraction the sound element is until it's removed, and you're left with only the pure image on the screen. There is a musical score, of course, which helps to heighten the emotional moments and play up the slapstick comedy, but a silent film is largely a visual experience. The performance of Jean Dujardin is a marvel, so genuine and effortless that you almost expect to find him sharing drinks with Chaplin or Fairbanks behind the scenes. Perhaps that's why next to him, Bérénice Bejo doesn't work quite as well. She delivers a terrific performance, but her looks just aren't cherubic enough for her to pass as a Hollywood ingenue.
And yet, it's hard to imagine that "The Artist" could have been made with either of these actors if it had been a sound film. Dujardin and Bejo, as well as the director, Michel Hazanavicius, are all French. And yet they've made a film that is pure Golden Age Hollywood, and probably wouldn't play as well in any other language other than English. And I think it helps that both of the leads are unfamiliar faces, to help sell the fiction that they're both old stars from some forgotten corner of film history. The more familiar actors who appear in the film, such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Missi Pyle, all fit the scenery, but their presence is slightly distracting. Then again, I doubt Hazanavicius wants his audience to entirely forget that they're watching a modern production.
It's a lot of fun for a film nerd to watch the director play with so many old visual tricks like collages and montages and vintage transitions, often playing homage to the films that originated them. At least two sequences directly reference "Citizen Kane." However, "The Artist" succeeds because the love story works, and it gets you to feel for the characters and root for them. It might take a while for a modern viewer, unfamiliar with the conventions of a silent film, to become immersed in the story. But once they do, I can't imagine that they wouldn't enjoy themselves. Sure, the melodrama is a little corny, and the pandering can get pretty shameless - George has an adorable Jack Russel terrier for a sidekick - but it's been a very long time since I've seen a film that held my attention so completely.
Yes, it's silent with intertitles. Yes, it's in black and white and stars actors few outside France have heard of. But that doesn't mean "The Artist" is stuffy or pretentious or just an academic exercise. Instead, it's a wonder. An imperfect throwback, perhaps, but an honest and honorable one. And in a year of nostalgic retreads and resurrections, "The Artist" is easily the most daring and successful of them all.