If you had told me last year that the front-runner for Best Picture at this year's Oscars was a silent movie from France, I would have told you you were crazy. But director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted just such a movie, in a wonderful little movie called The Artist. It takes place, as Singin' in the Rain did, at that moment where sound came in to destroy the reign of silent movies. "The French George Clooney" Jean Dujardin is our hero, George Valentin, a Hollywood superstar who crosses paths with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) on her rise to fame. Not strictly silent, and not strictly French (Americans John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, and Penelope Ann Miller also star), The Artist pays tribute to old silent comedies and melodramas, combining both beautifully to make one of the best movies of 2011.
We follow George Valentin as he starts on top of the movie business, only to be knocked down when talkies come around, because "nobody wants to hear me speak". His marriage is falling apart, and he meets young Peppy Miller, whom he takes under his wing a bit, as she goes from extra in his spy action pictures, to full on super stardom of her own, going from "it girl" to THE big name in Hollywood. As Peppy's star grows with her success in the talkies, George's fame falls hard, as audiences begin rejecting silent pictures altogether. It's a classic (i.e. cliche) storyline that we've seen a million times before, but like all cliches, when it's done right it still works, and it is most certainly done right here.
The movie has many wonderful little scenes, when George and Peppy have a little dance off, only seeing each others legs. Another where they literally cross paths as George is leaving the studio after being fired/quitting, and Peppy comes in, excited about finally having a studio contract. Hazanavicius frames this scene in a wonderful set of shots on the studio stairwell, with George on bottom, looking up to the future star Peppy. My favorite scene though, is when George gets Peppy a job as a ballroom dancing extra in his current movie, and we see take after take of George messing up the scene as he gets distracted by this beautiful young woman who's found her way into his life. It's terrifically romantic, and really sets up the melodrama of George's fall from grace much more powerfully than I would've expected.
I have no idea whether The Artist will win Best Picture at the Oscars, but I know that I will definitely be rooting for it. Dujardin is wonderful in the lead role, certainly deserving of a Best Actor Oscar if he ends up winning. And although Bejo (Mrs. Hazanavicius, by the way) is nominated as Supporting Actress for who know what reason (it's obviously a lead role), she'd deserve the award if she won too. Hazanavicius controls everything in a way that really works well for the movie, and it takes a certain kind of filmmaker to pull this kind of trick off. Modern silents are not unheard of (acclaimed Canadian auteur Guy Maddin has made three), but Hazanavicius's ability to pay homage to an era and a way of filmmaking while also crafting a terrific crowd pleaser like this should not go unnoticed.