The Artist opens with the premiere of a new film starring silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). It's a thriller entitled A Russian Affair, in which Valentin plays the dashing, death-defying hero, and as the movie reaches its exciting climax, the cast and crew pace anxiously behind the scenes. Finally, the film ends and they await the expected explosion of applause, but for a moment there is only total silence, until we see the nervous filmmakers break out into broad smiles. The audience has in fact been clapping enthusiastically; we just couldn't hear it.
This is a silent movie about silent movies, and sly little tricks like the one described above are what director Michel Hazanavicius knows best. He has already proven himself a dab hand at pastiche in his endearingly naff OSS:117 films – which starred Dujardin as a suave but clueless spy – and few director-actor pairs are better suited to a silent homage than these two. The Artist, however, is a significant step up from the two OSS:117 pictures, which often felt like a rather ramshackle collection of hit-and-miss gags. Here, the structure is more solid, the gags are sharper and the whole production is a good deal more polished than the director's previous films. 1920's Hollywood is lovingly recreated through the impressive production design and crisp black-and-white visuals, all of which is contained within a 4:3 frame and interrupted only by the intertitles required to share the characters' dialogue with us. Stylistically, at least, Hazanavicius gets everything just about right, and the effect is immediately entrancing.
The director doesn't dig into the silent era for his story, however, as films like Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born are the most obvious influences upon The Artist's narrative. George Valentin starts the film as top dog (with his faithful hound Uggy a close second),and such fame has inevitably resulted in a certain arrogance. One great early scene shows him, and Uggy, milking the crowd's adulation while his spotlight-starved wife and co-star (Penelope Ann Miller) fumes off stage. Few actors would be able to play such a scene of swaggering bravado while remaining so thoroughly likable, but that's the magic Dujardin brings to the role, his enormously expressive performance shining like a beacon at this movie's centre. The man radiates old-fashioned movie star charm from every pore and his Fairbanks-like performance here is a thing of beauty; light on his feet, displaying pin-sharp comic timing and able to completely shift the tone of a scene by simply raising an eyebrow. We instantly understand why Valentin was such an screen idol, and the man himself firmly believes he has nothing to fear from these newfangled talkies. "If that's your future, you can keep it!" he laughs after seeing test footage of a sound picture. We all know what happens next.
As one star falls another must rise, and the travails of George Valentin's fading screen career are set against the burgeoning stardom of irresistible ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). George is responsible for her big break, and then he has to stand by and watch as her face adorns the billboards that once bore his image. Again, the star quality that makes Peppy America's new cinematic sweetheart is obvious; some actresses might have struggled to stand up to Dujardin's formidable turn, but Bejo's dazzling smile, wit and grace makes her a perfect partner for him. The scenes they share together in the movie's opening half – their meet-cute, their multiple-take dancing on set, the delightful scene with the jacket – simply leap off the screen. This is pure cinematic magic.
The question is whether Hazanavicius can keep up the pace, and sadly he can't. After a breathless and invigorating opening, the film stalls with George's overextended slide into obscurity, and this is where the The Artist's habit of constantly drawing attention to its own construction works against it. The Artist always makes us aware that we're watching a silent film; it plays games with sound effects and intertitles ("I won't talk!"/"Why won't you talk?" etc.) and makes frequent references to other movies, including ones that exist outside the era it's paying homage to. Hazanavicius gets away with the Citizen Kane-inspired breakfast table gag, largely because of Dujardin and Uggy (a canine performance for the ages, this), but when he marks Valentin's lowest ebb with a snatch of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score, the effect is needlessly distracting. The Artist spends a long time trying to make us care about its central character's decline and fall, but the film is too knowing about its own artifice, and it spends too much time winking at the audience to achieve the necessary sense of depth when required.
The people who made silent films in the early days of cinema didn't know they were making silent films, they were just making cinema. They were creating, they were experimenting, they were trying to master this new visual language, and that sense of sincerity is what The Artist ultimately lacks. It's a stupendously enjoyable film, there's no question about that, and it overcomes its sluggish midsection magnificently with a rousing finale, but it's hard to see it as more than an expertly executed stunt. Still, as crowdpleasers go, this is one of the more unusual and commendable Oscar contenders to emerge in recent years, and one wonders what effect it will have on viewers who have never seen a silent film before. Will The Artist act as the beguiling gateway drug to a world of silent cinema, causing neophytes to eventually discover the masterworks of Keaton, Chaplin, Murnau, von Sternberg and more? Then, and only then, will they discover what silent movies can truly be.