Let 2011 be known as the year we collectively looked back. Nostalgia won out in every respect: velvety “War Horse” echoed the solemnity of a John Ford Western, “Midnight in Paris” staccatoed with the jittering energy of the Jazz Age and the characters of “The Help” boohoo-ed into starchy aprons and ’60s kerchiefs.
At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company
And then there was Michel Hazanavicius’s yearning tribute to old, gold Hollywood: “The Artist.” The film, his first English-language feature and a love note to Depression-era moviemaking, distinguishes itself from the pack — with its glamour lighting and deceivingly simple palette, it looks like it was actually produced in that time period.
The plotline, gossamer-thin, whirls around new-gal-in-town Peppy Miller (a dewy-eyed Bérénice Bejo, “A Knight’s Tale”) and her artfully coiffed beau, aging silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, “OSS 117: Lost in Rio”), in the historic changeover from silent film to talkie. Members of the old guard found themselves without a voice and the shiny ingénues who replaced them couldn’t stop chattering long enough to notice.
It’s an experiment on its own to see whether anyone would show up to see a black-and-white silent film dotted with nameless stars in tap shoes. But once the gimmickry of it all fades away, that’s when the celebration of film — and filmgoing — clicks in.
It should be said that “The Artist” is not a masterpiece. The subject matter is not original, nor is it the most artfully executed. The nuclear decay of silent luminaries was more melancholy in “Sunset Boulevard,” the exploration of the musical as medium more exuberant in “Singin’ in the Rain” and the valentine to cinema more bloodthirsty in “Inglourious Basterds.”
But there’s something decidedly comfortable about “The Artist,” alternately familiar and elastic, that imbues the film with its own character. It’s a wonderfully reactive movie, one that respectfully bows down to the audience’s need for easy entertainment. Its purpose is to please, and please it does.
More importantly, the movie serves as a periscope into what soundless cinema can provide. When we watch a silent film, it’s as if the whole world had been bubbled through a distiller. Time slows down, breaths are prolonged. We have the opportunity to intimately whisper to our boyfriends: What did she say? What did he say? The delayed reactions offer that liminal period of no-space, no-time, where in-between there exists a whole chasm of opportunity. The audience can create the meaning behind the abstract expression.
Though ultimately, our interpretations don’t matter so much. A lot of emotions in our world were built on hand gestures and body language, and the most potent scenes are the ones without words, when Valentin looks forlornly on at his sweetheart’s footfalls, crumbling into a million pieces.
We come to realize the beauty of “The Artist” lies not in celluloid, but within our responses to it. The film serves as a sort of anthropological barometer of contemporary society, a test to show that for all the megarobotronic explosions that tickle our fancies and checkbooks, we still have the capacity to be amazed by the simple pleasures — just as we were a century ago.
Are we the same audience we were in the 1920s? Probably (definitely) not, but there’s a seed of joy, handstitched into our DNA, that plants itself into our heartstrings and larynxes. It is that joy, far greater than the sum of any old movie, which makes the aftershocks of “The Artist” so undeniably magnificent.