When I first saw "OSS 117" at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2006 I discovered an actor with one of the most expressive faces I'd ever seen. Jean Dujardin showed he possessed more comic talent in his eyebrows than most actors do in their entire bodies. At the time of course I had no idea what "OSS" writer-director Michel Hazanavicius had in mind for Dujardin in the future but once I heard what it was I knew it was going to be something special.
"The Artist" is a (mostly) silent, black and white film and it is the perfect showcase for its star. It's Hollywoodland, 1927, and superstar George Valentin (Dujardin) has yet another hit on his hands. It is clear from the reception to "A Russian Affair," that Valentin's star shines as brightly as Keaton's or Chaplin's and what's more, he knows and loves it. He also doesn't mind aggravating his leading lady (Missi Pyle), his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), or his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Still, he has great affection for his valet Clifton (James Cromwell) and his loyal canine co-star (Uggie the Dog).
After the premiere of "A Russian Affair" however, someone else enters the picture; hopeful young dancer and actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). There is an instant connection and slowly Peppy's star begins to rise. George is only too happy for her until Zimmer decides that silent films (and thus George) are the past. Talkies and Peppy are the future. George considers talking on screen to be beneath him and feels that talkies will be a failed experiment but a combination of being wrong and the stock market crashing effectively end his career. He attempts to pick up the pieces on his own while Peppy becomes a bigger and bigger star, but she continues to love the man who gave her her start.
Hazanavicius has written and directed a film that most filmmakers would be far too afraid to make. He reminds us all though that the loss of silent film as an art form more than 80 years ago was a sad one. His love and respect for it is in the details such as shooting it in the aspect ratio of the day, 1.33:1 (what TVs used to be before HD) and his supreme confidence in his cast. Dujardin is beyond wonderful and proves to be a true artist himself. It's clear that had he been born in another era he could have been as popular and beloved as Valentin in the mid-'20s. Bejo is excellent as well. She clearly pours her heart into the role of Peppy and shows her talent knows no time period bounds.
One of the advantages of making a silent film is that French leads such as Dujardin and Bejo can easily share the screen with Goodman, Miller, and Cromwell who provide fantastic support. I'd be incredibly remiss however if I didn't make special mention of Uggie, who may be the finest movie dog since Asta from the "Thin Man" series. I could watch Uggie and Dujardin play on screen again and again. They obviously have a lot of fun together. The music of Ludovic Bource is superb as well. A perfect fit.
"The Artist" is a movie for true film lovers. It is made with love and a sense of joy that is incredibly rare. I believe as well that Hazanavicius hopes to encourage those who haven't to give silent movies a try. He wants a new generation to discover Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and so many others. This makes me love his film all the more. I hope that many more will love it too. 10/10 ("The Arist" is currently in limited release. In Seattle it is playing at the Harvard Exit.)