How does a film that harks back to the Silent Era - silently - and that reimagines old Hollywood's cigar-chomping studio chiefs, chauffeured roadsters, debonair leading men, and winsome starlets feel so vital and new?
Michel Hazanavicius, the French director heretofore known for a couple of lightweight James Bond parody pastiches (the OSS 117 pics), has pulled off an amazing hat trick with The Artist, a black-and-white and (mostly) mute homage to vintage moviedom. With its criminally catchy musical score (Ludovic Bource, and a significant sampling of Bernard Herrmann, too) and a winking but surprisingly poignant performance from Jean Dujardin, The Artist reconfigures the audience/screen dynamic. Without dialogue (save for the spare use of intertitle cards), our screen senses are heightened. We take in the actors, their motions and emotions, more keenly. The music hits our ears differently, more deeply.
Strangely, wonderfully, The Artist feels as bold and innovative a moviegoing experience as James Cameron's bells-and-whistles Avatar did a couple of years ago. Retro becomes nuevo. Quaint becomes cool.
Like Singin' in the Rain, the great MGM musical, The Artist is about Hollywood's seismic shift from silents to talkies, and the difficulty some of the great stars of '20s cinema had transitioning from one format to the other. (In Singin' in the Rain, leading lady Lina Lamont - Jean Hagen - turns out to have a voice so hysterically high-pitched that audiences guffawed when she delivered a line.)
Dujardin's George Valentin is a Douglas Fairbanks-type rialto titan, a handsome hero of swashbucklers and romances. He is rich and famous. He is also impossibly full of himself, mugging to the press, preening before adoring fans.
It is at the premiere of his latest spy thriller, A Russian Affair, in the crush of flashing cameras and oohing crowds, that he first encounters Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fetching flapper who dreams of making it in the movies. Their paths cross again, when she wins an audition as a dancer in a new Valentin vehicle. Sparks fly. He is a married man, but it's a dreary marriage (Penelope Ann Miller is the unhappy spouse). He spends more time with his trusty Jack Russell, Uggie, than he does with his spouse.
And then, he starts spending time with Peppy, too, as her career takes off. It is 1929 and she is toplining talking pictures, while Valentin, convinced it's all a fad, is bombing at the box office. He pours all his money into a new silent production, and it sinks - just like the character he plays in it: chin-deep in quicksand. He starts to drink. A lot. (There's a terrific scene at a bar, where he's paid a hallucinatory visit by spear-carrying extras from his jungle adventure flop.) Valentin moves from his big manse to a tiny apartment with a Murphy bed. His life is going to blazes.
It's the A Star Is Born template: the alcohol-soaked old star who mentors the up-and-coming ingenue.
But have no fear, The Artist is the absolute opposite of a bummer. This is no dark drama of Hollywood despair.
So the ending is corny, and perhaps Dujardin and Bejo are not the next Fred and Ginger, but who cares? Hazanavicius and his cast (which also includes James Cromwell, John Goodman, and Malcolm McDowell) have writ a love letter to a bygone day, to bygone ways. And in doing so, they've reminded us why we love the movies, and why they matter.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.