This clever take on the silent era is a valentine (note the titular character's name) to Old Hollywood and especially to lovers of classic movies. Unknown French director Michel Hazanavicius, who also wrote the screenplay, wanted to take on the challange of making a silent film, complete with black & white photography & title cards, in the 21st century. To say that he succeeded (whether you like the film or not) cannot be denied.
The movie opens in 1927 Hollywood. Silent superstar George Valentin (a combination of Douglas Fairbanks Sr & John Gilbert & played by French actor Jean Dujardin) is about to be caught up in the transition to sound. While he is dealing with this crisis, young extra Peppy Miller (a cross between the young Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, & Gloria Swanson & winningly played by Berenice Bejo who just happens to be the director's wife) makes the transition to sound and is on her way up. The parallel to A STAR IS BORN is obvious along with several other references to classic films such as CITIZEN KANE (the breakfast scene), SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (the sound test), & THE THIN MAN (the dog). For the end sequence, pick the Astaire-Rogers musical of your choice.
Along with the French performers, two American character actors are given prominent roles in the proceedings. John Goodman plays the classic Hollywood studio head complete with fat cigar while James Cromwell is George's loyal chauffeur (a reference to SUNSET BOULEVARD). Both adapt themselves well to the silent medium. While there are several references to other classic Hollywood films, THE ARTIST is more than just a simple homage. It's also the heartwarming story of two people headed in different directions with some lightweight comedy thrown in & one classic scene between Berenice Bejo & an empty coat.
Despite all the critical praise, THE ARTIST does have some issues from my perspective as an instructor on silent movies. Most of them are visual and won't be noticed by the casual filmgoer. The number one problem is with the lighting. Most silent films have a much more varied contrast between light & shadow (even the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd) but then silent films weren't shot in color on modern equipment and then turned into black & white. This also gives the film a rather flat look on occasion which becomes somewhat boring after awhile. I would have liked to see the lighting and photography change as the time frame moved from the silent to the sound era.
But this is scholarly nitpicking. I was delighted at how well THE ARTIST captures the spirit of the era although that era is much more the early 1930s than the late 1920s. I am even more delighted that it's reaching a mainstream audience who are now discovering the world of the silent cinema for the first time. In interviews director Hazanavicius said that that is what he hoped his "little film" would do, which it has. Silent films are not for everyone and never will be but they are a valid art form as different from sound films as ballet is from opera. For opening the door to a wider appreciation of the films of the distant past, THE ARTIST deserves its accolades.