"The Artist" inhabits a buoyant and imaginative world.
3-D, phooey. Imax, meh. Motion-capture, whatever. If you want real movie enchantment, forget the technical gewgaws. "The Artist," a gleefully inventive, gloriously entertaining black-and-white silent, proves that less is more. It's a rocket to the moon fueled by unadulterated joy and pure imagination.
The story is set in Hollywood in the waning days of silent film. Yes, yes, you've heard this one before, but the old story has never been told this well.
"The Artist" opens with a tuxedoed hero undergoing electroshock torture at the hands of Leninist-looking villains. As they amp up the voltage on machinery that looks borrowed from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," they command the prisoner to break his silence. "Speak! Speak!" the intertitles bellow. But they underestimate his determination. In short order the gentleman spy escapes, the adventure ends and the film reframes itself as the glittering premiere of the feature we've just sampled, with the charmingly cocky star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) taking bows on the stage of a packed movie palace.
Valentin soaks up the crowd's adulation, upstages his leading lady and hams it up with his faithful Jack Russell terrier (played by the adorable Uggie). There's a clown's poetry in his body language, alongside the physical confidence of a matinee idol. When he exits the theater, so many autograph seekers crowd the red carpet that aspiring starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is virtually pushed into his arms, and he good-naturedly invites her to pose for some gag photos.
George is on top of the world, but, as we know from "Sunset Boulevard" and "Singin' in the Rain," the arrival of talking pictures cut down silent stars like a plague. George's producer friend Al (a wonderfully expressive John Goodman) warns that times and tastes are changing, and audiences want the novelty of sound and fresh new talents.
Talents like Peppy, who has become the season's high-spirited "it" girl, thanks to those gag photos with George. Peppy meets him again on the studio staircase. She's eagerly heading up to a contract meeting as George heads dejectedly down. As the Depression and self-financed silent failures deplete his fortunes, George's trajectory takes him from his mansion to pawnshops and gin mills. But what would such a film be without a triumphant happy ending?
Director Michel Hazanavicius worked with Dujardin on a pair of entertaining spy spoofs (the "OSS 117" movies, worth a rent). The actor showed a jester's spirit in a leading man's body, and the director gave the stories impish momentum, but nothing in their partnership prepared us for this beautiful piece of work. Hazanavicius has a control over the medium that is hypnotic. He shot "The Artist" in the squarish screen ratio of the era, and he works every simple, elegant image with dazzling craftsmanship. The gags interlock symmetrically. Props are placed with surgical precision, sets are dressed with exquisite attention to detail, and the locations are quietly inspired (several scenes are shot among historic areas of sunny Beverly Hills). Even when the visuals are melodramatic or aggressively stylized, they're apt for the storytelling methods of the late silents. Once you step into this time capsule, you're simply swept along.
With his piano-keyboard grin and instinctive rapport with the camera, Dujardin is a born star; if he were a native English speaker he'd have George Clooney on the run. Bejo, the director's wife, has the sparking energy of a flapper and she looks great wriggling in a satin sheath. She's got more depth than the typical jazz baby, though. Her soulful moments are genuinely touching. When they team up for the razzle-dazzle finale, their sheer delight in performing is blissful. Hollywood recognizes them as a couple of superstars, and so do we.