The Artist is the kind of movie that movie-lovers love: It's a silent movie about silent movies, shot in black and white, with lots of references to classic cinema, and it's French — not that language mattered before talking pictures. This all makes it a novelty, much like Mel Brooks' 1976 comedy Silent Movie, a silent movie — except for one audible word, spoken by Marcel Marceau — about a director trying to persuade actors to appear in his — yeah, you guessed it — silent movie.
It seems that if you want to make a silent movie, you can't just make one: You need to make it about silent movies. Is this postmodern, or just a gimmick? (Is there a difference?) But why even bother? Why not use everything at your disposal to create your work of art? You could always make a "talkie" where people just don't say anything.
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist opens with a scene from a sci-fi movie being performed by the narcissistic George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a fictional silent-screen star. "I won't talk!" his character shouts under torture. "I won't say a word!" Get it? But it's 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, so he'd better untie his tongue PDQ if he wants to be able to keep affording his manservant (James Cromwell).
From there, the story you can see coming unfolds: Movies talk, George won't, and his career tanks. The people in his orbit include a rising young star (Bérénice Bejo) who admires and soon loves him, his wife-cum-leading-lady (Penelope Ann Miller), his producer (John Goodman), and his sidekick, a well-trained little dog. (Sorry, didn't catch the actor's name.)
The cinematography is gorgeous, and thank goodness, because The Artist is the dullest movie I've seen in a long time: transparent, superficial and, needless to say, with no take-home lines. A dream sequence has synchronized sound, and there's a pert rendition of "Pennies From Heaven" on the soundtrack along with orchestral music. The acting is sterling, but only because it's not silent-film acting.
The Artist has very few title cards in light of how often the actors' lips move, and yet, we always "know" what they're saying. This might demonstrate that movies don't need dialogue, or else it simply proves how bad most movie dialogue is. Either way, The Artist is a bore, just like the hammy has-been around which it revolves.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Penelope Ann Miller
Starts Fri., Jan. 13. AMC Loews, Manor