“I’ll never talk!” silent film star George Valentin cries (via title card). And right there, in the opening seconds, The Artist tidily introduces its central conflict.
The Artist traverses familiar territory—the classic Singin’ in the Rain dramatized the rise of the talkie way back in 1952—but cuts its own unique path. The dream sequence in which sound quite literally bursts into Valentin’s silent world exemplifies the picture’s stylized approach. In an era that takes sound for granted, it’s refreshing to see some legitimate innovation, a novel voice that evokes the likes of Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Lang’s M, and Chaplin’s Modern Times.
But this creativity only reinforces the movie’s elegant use of silence. The action occurs between 1927 and 1932, when directors as stubborn and proud as Valentin perfected the obsolete art of screen pantomime in films such as City Lights, Sunrise, and A Story of Floating Weeds. Jean Dujardin absolutely earns his Oscar, immersing the viewer in the period by bottling the energy, timing, and mannerisms of masters like Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Keaton—making Valentin’s frustration with his gradual irrelevance all the more palpable. Michel Hazanavicius, too, deserves his statue. He takes his place alongside Chaplin, Murnau, and Ozu by not only capturing the flavor of Hollywood’s most artistically fruitful years, but also by demonstrating once again that you don’t need words to tell a good story. The proof: Valentin and dancing extra Peppy Miller slowly fall for each other across successive takes on the set of A German Affair.
Their body language and expressive eyes say it all. No dialogue required.
[Originally written March 3, 2012.]