Dir. Michel Hazanavicius
(2011, PG-13, 100 min)

The Artist thoroughly charmed me as I watched it, then didn’t inspire much thought after it was over; I don’t know if that’s a criticism or not. This is a film I wish I could have seen before I’d spent six months hearing about it, before it was raved at the Cannes Film Festival and then started making the rounds of critics’ awards leading up to a likely haul of Oscar nominations. After all this time, it’s hard to separate the film from the noise of the season, but I’ll give it a shot.

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius whimsically recreates a silent-film aesthetic to tell the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a movie star who refuses to adapt to the revolution of sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s. While his career fades, ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is on the rise. They cross paths early on, when he’s at his best and she is just starting out. They are immediately attracted to each other, begin a flirtation, and then follow their opposite trajectories, though they’re always on each other’s radar.

That this has been made as a silent film has brought it its greatest attention, and our attention it has, but simply the fact of being a silent film in the 21st century isn’t a creative accomplishment any more than being a musical, a cartoon, or in a foreign language is. It is what the filmmaker does within his chosen form that makes the difference. I remember Steven Soderbergh attempted his own silver-screen pastiche in 2006, the film noir The Good German, which unfortunately turned out not to be a good film noir; its genre provided it with novelty, but not quality.

Hazanavicius fares considerably better. He delights in absurd touches, musical flourishes, and the wordless expressiveness of his actors, orchestrating them with self-awareness; he wants us not only to watch his film but to consider our watching of the film, to appreciate each aspect of the cinematic style he’s revisiting. He achieves a few moments of genuine magic, including my favorite scene, a dream sequence in which George hears noises everywhere but can’t hear his own voice; the subtle use of sound effects – wind blowing, a chair moving, the laughter of passers-by – adds an eerie new dimension to the film’s classical style.

But as throwbacks go, The Artist doesn’t reach the same heights of wonder as another recent film inspired by the era: WALL-E, which in its first act channeled Charlie Chaplin with spectacular beauty. This is not a film at that level of, well, artistry – nothing quite like the flicker of a lighter in the eyes of a lovestruck robot. Hazanavicius speaks the language of early film with style and wit, but he’s not quite a poet.

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