“Speak!” the torturers demand of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in his new thriller, The Russian Affair, but he will not and it will be a lot more torture until he does. That is what’s at stake in Michel Hazanavicious’s delightful The Artist. I suppose I should mention that it isn’t that Valentin doesn’t want to speak, he can’t and his torturers can’t speak either, their cries of “Speak!” are read on title cards because The Russian Affair is a silent film and so is The Aritist. The actor Valentin, watching his performance from behind the screen waits patiently for applause after the credits. We see him smile but we have a jarring realization that we can’t hear the clapping that he can and so we are off. Valentin is a silent star at the birth of the talkies who is resistant to the new technology and finds himself becoming obsolete, eclipsed by Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the starlet he helped launch. Hazanavicious is a gifted satirist as he and Dujardin have made their name spoofing spy films in the OSS 117 series and here he delivers an excellent spoof of silent movies specifically, but really movies in general. So many elements are lifted from other sources, starting with the plot, which belongs to Singing in the Rain. There is a sequence portraying Valentin’s decaying marriage which is taken from Citizen Kane, Valentin becomes broke but experiences the Great Depression in the matter that William Powell did in My Man Godfrey and a good 10 minutes uses the score from Vertigo, the actual note for note score (I’ll return to that) but on the whole this feels like homage, a Tarantino-esque combination of hat tips and winks that feels original when all brought together.
This would not be the best movie of 1927 (that would be Murnau’s Sunrise) but it is one of the best movies of 2011 and would fit comfortably in the range of a movie like Souls for Sale, the 1923 Robert Hughes picture that I was constantly reminded of while watching The Artist. That one was also a backstage dramady with some high profile cameos from stars of the time like King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin. Here we get John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell. A complaint about The Artist is that it’s slight and so it is. It’s not about anything other than it’s Tinseltown story, but that story is told so effortlessly well with such charisma from its two leads, what else does it need to be about? I don’t know if it will win Best Picture in February, but if it does, it will join a tradition of past winners that are also slight that include Shakespeare in Love, The Sting and It Happened One Night. I love art house movies as much as anybody but there’s no reason a straight narrative, when told with such wit, can’t be considered great.
Now to that Vertigo score. Disregard the ridiculous claim by Kim Novak that its use “raped” her body of work. The choice to include it is a wrong one on a tonal level. It brings about the wrong message. For 80 minutes the movie has flirted a line of melodrama and comedy, keeping the melodrama campy, then suddenly, to add unneeded heft, I guess, it takes a turn away from Lubitsch and Von Sternberg, who Hazanavicious the disciple, has been mimicking so far, and tries to move into Frank Borzage territory in which the director is less comfortable. The plotting is in line with the rest of the movie but intoning Hitchcock’s most disturbing and complicated psychological movie to a scene that is completely about uncomplicated immediate reaction strikes a false note. The movie regains its form for its wonderful finale and it’s hard not to leave happy.
Outside of the film itself, I was very pleased to see a number of children at the showing I attended, at least one even too young to read the titles and had to be assisted by his mother. Silent movies are perfect for thoughtful children as they are the most dreamlike of all and dreams never need to be explained to a child.