It’s hard to be dapper in the age of rappers. The whole idea of wealthy chic went out with the top hat, and the art of deference. Perhaps we had to see the rich like jewels – something rare and precious – in order for them to shine. In Michel Hazanavicius’ movie, The Artist, we’re tastefully transported back to a time when film stars were treated like aristocrats. The movie is an air kiss to silent cinema. In execution, it’s as impeccable as a Cartier watch. I’m not sure it’s about anything, other than giving pleasure, but I felt about a thousand times more suave for having seen it. Perhaps it’s enough, to be like a movie-lover of the 1920s: to swoon over trompe l’oeil, and to feel the romance of life in lustrous black and white.
This is the story of a silent movie star called George Valentin. He’s an icon of his day, an artist, universally adored. Even his dog gets fan mail. We meet George at the very peak of his career. The year is 1927. At the premiere for George’s latest film, he gets kissed on the cheek by an unknown young woman. The next day, the only question in the newspapers is: Who’s That Girl? Answer: She’s Peppy Miller, a wannabe, soon to be the biggest star in talking pictures. George, alas, doesn’t speak (on screen). So his career is finished. In a few years, he won’t even be recognised by the fickle crowd. Thankfully, his dog (and Peppy) won’t abandon him – or their love of silence. Some old-fashioned things aren’t allowed to die.
The genteel wit of The Artist is evident from the first scene, where George is tortured for information (in his latest film), but defiantly tells his captors: “I won’t talk!” A later dream sequence, where George is bullied by sound, continues this play-on-(the absence of)-words. By the time George’s wife says they “need to talk”, you’re either tickled by the joke or scanning for the nearest exit. The Artist is not a biting satire of show business. It’s a bon-bon that’s been cooked up to make cineastes go gooey inside. Even the movie studio George and Peppy work for is named after Edison’s first motion picture camera. George’s dog might as well be named Rin Tin Tin. The movie has a crush on early Hollywood: that kingdom of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, where everyone was glamorous and no-one worried about their “indiscretions” winding up on TMZ.
French actor, Jean Dujardin, is so goddamn handsome he could fluster George Clooney. The only thing you can’t believe about him as a movie star is that he isn’t one already. The man has charm the way a hunchback has posture issues. If you looked up the word “debonair” in the dictionary, you’d find Jean Dujardin in place of Cary Grant. He has a chin that could get him dinner reservations anywhere in the world. He even makes a moustache look cool! The fact that he spends the film looking the way he does, while being accompanied everywhere by a cute dog, is a bit of a charm blitzkrieg. But the fact you don’t end up jealously hating Jean is surely testament to his skill as an actor, and the remarkable appeal of the film.
His co-star, Bérénice Bejo, has a way of winking at the camera which should be encouraged in her future work. She plays the ingénue with just the right amount of sass, and she wears the clothes of the period in a way Coco Chanel would have approved of. Her slender beauty feels right for a “flapper”, even if real flappers weren’t quite so slender in their day. The main thing is she has a sense of fun about her which is infectious. She brings a spark of mischief to The Artist. You find it easy to believe she’d catch George Valentin’s eye. Bejo is gamine in a way perhaps you have to be French in order to pull off correctly. She could stab a puppy six times…and flutter those eyelids, and there isn’t a jury on Earth that would convict.
If you’re too jaded for The Artist, I’m afraid there’s no hope for you. You probably sneer at the first bud of spring. This movie is joyous, elegant and life-affirming. A half hour in, like George, you’ll feel it’s vulgar to hear people speak. What needs to be said, after all? This movie is pure cinema, undiluted by words. Through watching it, you come to understand why silent films cast such an alluring spell. Our world of texts and blogs; Facebook and Twitter needs The Artist. It has a palliative effect for viewers in an age where words are hurled at us wherever we go. There’s an ease to black and white silent film; it exists, without the urge to convince you that it’s real. Once you take away speech, film is closer to a dream.