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The Artist is old school in every sense. It’s presented in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It’s shot in black & white, on film stock. And, aside from a classically-styled film score, it’s almost entirely silent. It doesn’t get much more old school than that.

A Hollywood Affair

George and Peppy
George and Peppy

Simply superb and featuring an incandescent – albeit silent – cast, The Artist works its magic.

It begins with a movie within the movie. A live orchestra accompanies the action while the audience watches with rapt attention and cheers as a masked hero and his dog thwart their captors and escape in the espionage flick A Russian Affair. It’s a huge box office success and the world can’t get enough of George Valentin (that’s Valentine without the final “e”) and his uncanny canine pal. In short order, a sequel goes into production. It’s even got a brilliant title: A German Affair.

Buoyed by this enormous success, George (Jean Dujardin, Little White Lies) is a media darling. But the public attention creates domestic tension when vivacious and flirtatious Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, A Knight’s Tale) makes her way into the paparazzi’s lens and gives George a peck on the cheek. Mrs. Valentin, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, Kindergarten Cop), is none too pleased. She’s used to being ignored, to the point of doodling away on posters and postcards of her husband, adding comic attributes counter to his debonair persona. But the world is taking her husband away from her more and more.

George’s charmed life will face a raft of challenges soon enough. Doris leaves him and the stock market crashes, but the biggest hurdle of all will be the advent of sound. Talking movies, a notion George had so quickly dismissed as a crock, might very well be his undoing.

At least George’s dog remains forever loyal.

Sound Decision

The advent of talking movies was a technological sea change within a single communications medium that dwarfs the ever-advancing technological developments in delivering audio recordings (cylinders, Gramophones, Victrolas, LPs, cassettes, CDs, MP3s) and TV’s transitions from black-and-white to color to stereo to high definition.

George scoffs when he’s brought in to witness a sound test. “If that’s the future, you can have it,” he says, writing off the experiment as utter nonsense.

The whole scenario turns into a setup for this movie’s equivalent of a set piece, one that involves the extremely brief use of sound and vocals.

George is in his dressing room and he takes a sip from a glass. When he puts the glass down... it makes a SOUND! He’s perplexed. He picks up the glass and puts it down again. The sound repeats. Knocking over other items on his desk also generates sounds.

Beside himself with confusion, George runs outside and hears dancing girls giggle as they walk by. Then he watches as a leaf gently floats down from a tree. Its landing incurs the sound of an explosion. He can hear people talk, but he can’t hear his own voice.

It’s a nightmare.

The Thief of Her Heart

There are plenty of reasons to admire The Artist. It is a charming movie with some truly great moments of pure, sublime movie magic.

More significantly, though, is the somewhat subversive notion that The Artist is an attempt to dial back all the digital age noise brought on by the likes of George Lucas, Zack Snyder, and James Cameron. In this information age, the pace of data processing is ceaselessly on the uptick, as is the sheer volume of data barraging the public at large.

What happens, then, when the rules of that information processing are changed? What if people have to reconnect to more primal communications and pay attention to more subtle, human clues of messaging via facial expressions and body language?

From that point of view, The Artist is a triumph.

One scene in particular is hot, but the heat is generated strictly by the seductive power of the moving image. In this particular case, Peppy hugs herself while slipping her right arm through George’s jacket, which is dangling on a coat hanger in his dressing room. Her arm wraps around her waist and her fingers caress her side. It’s old school hot. It’s old school magic.

Another great sequence intertwines the stories of George and Peppy. He’s on the verge of suicide, she’s recklessly driving down the road, narrowly missing one collision after another. Then the title card: “BANG!” What follows is a terrific dramatic scene of pure cinema, pure storytelling – no music, no sound. It’s absolute silence as emotions are conveyed by moving images alone.

Past Atmospherics

Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has worked with both of his leads, Dujardin and Bejo, before, pairing them in the spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

The OSS 117 movies star Dujardin as a 007-esque spy (who previously worked as a circus acrobat) hampered by arrogance and prejudice as opposed to the utter goofiness of Austin Powers or the sheer incompetence of Inspector Jacques Clouseau. While the humor is as scattershot as the aim of 117’s enemies, the movies fully recreate the look and feel of 1960s movies much the same way The Artist recreates the late 1920s.

Given his feature film success in recreating past eras, it’ll be interesting to watch Hazanavicius’ career move forward and see what he does in more contemporary settings.