Given that the last silent film to win the Oscar for Best Picture was also the first film ever to win—Wings, in 1929—it’s little short of miraculous that The Artist, a painstaking homage to what movies looked like before the advent of sound, is considered the frontrunner in this year’s race. And if your only experience with silents to date has been scattered clips in montages, you could do far worse than to let this charming trifle serve as an introduction. Just understand that you could also do far better, as the masterpieces of that era leave The Artist in the dust when it comes to narrative ingenuity and (especially) visual splendor.
Anybody familiar with a couple of later classics—A Star Is Born (pick your version) and Singin’ in the Rain—has a head start on the new film’s storyline. Talkies are about to take Hollywood by storm, and matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, a certain Best Actor nominee), convinced that actors talking onscreen is just a fad, finds his fortunes beginning to fall just as those as of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a guileless ingénue he’s befriended, begin to rocket skyward. And that’s about it, really. Two actors moving in opposite directions, one of them a victim of technological chance, the other its beneficiary.
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Bejo’s husband), The Artist does a reasonable job of replicating superficial aspects of silent cinema—title cards in lieu of dialogue, of course, but also a more percussive rhythm and a heightened exuberance in the performance style. So long as it’s merely striving to entertain, it’s thoroughly delightful. The second half, however, in which George’s life goes to hell, becomes a static slog that makes you long for somebody to speak up, just to breThe Help—makes it remotely resemble the work of a true artist.