(Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
As a piece of cinematic storytelling, The Artist is largely quite outstanding. Silent film is unforgiving in this regard. Denied the crutch of dialogue or sound effects, a director must get his visuals right in a silent film or risk audience boredom, or worse; alienation. And Hazanavicius does get it right. His loving tribute (pastiche is another appropriate term) tells a clear, simple and fairly predictable story with precise, muscular and evocative visuals. The characters are broad, recognisable archetypes; the setting is iconic and vivid, and familiar from our pop-culture memory.
It is the story of Silent Movie Star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose fall from fame and success is entwined with the rise of Peppy Miller (Berenice Barejo), a young starlet whose life sporadically and memorably brushes against his as the coming of "talkies" to Hollywood changes both of their lives and careers.
The leads are both excellent in the hyper-expressive, pantomime fashion demanded by the absence of any sound, and the film is careful to retain some of the naturalism of modern cinema, evident in patches of performance from both stars. This is an issue; The Artist tries very hard to get Silent Cinema right, and that means that the few moments it gets wrong are jarring. To nitpick; some of the visuals are too sharp for the soft look which is prevalent, there are a couple of "modern" camera angles and movements, and the soundtrack by Ludovic Bource, which is generally superb, makes extended and jarring use of Bernard Hermann's score from Hitchcock's Vertigo. But it is brilliantly paced, stylishly shot and designed, and has a warm-hearted sense of the World and character which makes it immensely likeable. The counter-argument would run that such warmth prevents any true drama or bite, this is a film uninterested in grit or realism; it seeks glamour and escapism, and it finds them.
Making Silent movies the subject allows Hazanavicius to play with some of the conventions of that mostly defunct genre, but he never really investigates these, just uses them - with some wit - for his little gags and references.
It all works, for the most part. It may be undeniably slight, and empty, but it's pretty, and funny, and satisfying, in its way.
All that, and I never even mentioned the dog...