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Magical and Inventive, What Film Can Be

In a time of bigger and louder, “The Artist” takes us to the simpler world of silent movies. Director Michel Hazanavicius’s confection is a sweetly satisfying mix of wit, lavish production values and superb performances. “The Artist” itself is mostly a silent movie; but once you give yourself up to its gentle seductiveness, the images and music that dance across the screen are as involving and affecting as in any “talkie.” It is a bold, inventive movie that uses modern production techniques to recall a bygone time with high style and an homage to film history. (It even screens in the old aspect ratio used by silent films.) The film opens in 1927, when the dashing, debonaire film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is Hollywood’s brightest Errol Flynn-esque star, swashbuckling through successive adventure films and flashing his million-dollar smile both on and off screen. By chance, he meets newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director’s wife in real life), who wants to be in movies. He helps her and becomes a mentor, but when sound arrives, her career ascends while his — he is too proud to try to talk to the camera — plummets. By now you may be thinking “A Star is Born,” hearing a little of “Singin’ in the Rain” or even remembering “Sunset Boulevard.” Just what Hazanavicius wanted, as he quotes from other, often better, movies: a passing-of-time montage is lifted directly from “Citizen Kane.” But he also invents clever scenes of his own: a delightful courtship between George and Peppy that plays out in a series of takes while filming a single scene; Peppy seductively inserting her arm into George’s empty hanging jacket; Peppy’s legs dancing behind a half-raised screen. And then there is George’s terrier, Uggy, the most delightful scene stealer since the Thin Man’s Asta. Of course, none of this visual magic would work without Dujardin and Bejo, who make the joy, longing and regret of their characters nearly palpable. Bejo’s infectious excitement at becoming America’s sweetheart gives way to sincere caring for the despondent George; and Dujardin makes George’s fall a parable about the perils of fame, pride and change. Equally good supporting performances come from James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and especially John Goodman, who chews up the scenery. And Ludovic Bource’s score is a perfect mix of playful, somber and portentous, ending with a fabulous dance number that sums up the film’s joyfulness in fewer than four minutes. At a time when too many movies overwhelm and overreach with mixes of technical brillance and pseudo-philosophy, of aural assault and pretentious babble, “The Artist” is a loving, elegant, refreshing escape into a world of glamour and romance, and, above all, optimism and joy. It is less about what films can do than about what they can be. It is absolutely magical. “The Artist” is playing in Great Barrington, MA, and is scheduled to open at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY, Feb. 17. The film, nominated for 10 Oscars, among them best picture, is rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and crude gesture.

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