This promises to be a challenging year for Oscar voters. The old reliables — Steven Spielberg with War Horse, Martin Scorsese with Hugo, Clint Eastwood with J. Edgar — haven’t set the world on fire, and seeming shoo-ins like The Iron Lady and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have been greeted with as much disappointment as delight. The hands-down best movie of 2011 was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but the Academy Awards do not exist to reward artistic quality alone, and Malick’s luminous commentary on Genesis and Job no doubt left many Academy members bored rather than bedazzled. The year’s more accessible hits, on the other hand — The Help, Moneyball, even Bridesmaids — may feel a bit too middlebrow and unpretentious to carry home the trophy.
In the past, wide-open Oscar races have often ended with a rush to an appealing dark horse — a Chariots of Fire, say, or a Slumdog Millionaire. This year, that impulse could benefit Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris or Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. But Allen and Payne are insiders, known quantities, big names, and their movies are meditative and intimate rather than crowd-pleasing. The more likely Oscar dark horse has a more unusual pedigree, and a more eager-to-please style. The only things it doesn’t have are sound and color.
Actually, that’s not quite right. The movie in question, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, has a galloping, percussive score and one surreal burst of everyday noise. What it doesn’t have is any dialogue, except for the lines that flash occasionally on intertitles, as they might in a Buster Keaton vehicle. The Artist is an homage to Hollywood’s silent era that treats imitation as the sincerest form of reverence. Not content to celebrate the pre-talkie age of filmmaking, it remains resolutely talk-free itself.
In this, it follows the example of its hero, a fictional 1920s screen legend named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Broad of shoulders and wide of smile, Valentin bestrides silent-era Hollywood like a colossus, supplying Douglas Fairbanks–style derring-do to an eager audience and coming home every night to a lavish mansion hung with life-size portraits of its owner. The only person who doesn’t seem completely besotted with him is his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and when he gives a professional break and then a kiss to a young ingénue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) we get an inkling why.
Valentin’s encounter with Peppy turns out to be a hinge moment in both of their careers. In the tradition of A Star Is Born, his light soon diminishes while hers glows ever brighter. The age of dialogue is dawning, and Valentin’s director (a boisterous John Goodman) tries to induce him to do a sound test. Out of some combination of pride, anxiety, and principle, the star refuses: “If that’s the future,” the intertitle quotes him telling his patron, “you can have it.”
It’s Peppy who ends up having it, embracing a career as a flapper-era Meg Ryan while Valentin undertakes a doomed, self-financed silent project that plays to vacant theaters and empties out his bank account. Then comes the Depression, and it’s down to skid row for him, with his only companions a loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and a still more loyal Jack Russell terrier. Down, but not forgotten: Even as she climbs the Hollywood staircase, the sparks from that first encounter stay with Peppy, and she emerges as a kind of guardian angel for the self-destructive Valentin — if, that is, the prideful fallen star will consent to let her save him.
This entire story is conveyed by actors who express more emotion with their bodies and their faces than many movie stars manage with a script’s worth of dialogue, and by a director who’s clearly absolutely besotted with his medium, its history, and its endless possibilities. I would have to know the silent era better, I’m sure, to catch all the references and shout-outs and clever reimaginings that Hazanavicius (a Frenchman, like his co-stars) weaves into The Artist. But I know enough to recognize true devotion when I see it.
Which is why criticizing the movie feels akin to shattering a child’s diorama, or drawing a mustache on a proud parent’s baby picture. Still, a joyful stunt is not quite the same thing as a great film, and in a sense The Artist’s stunt succeeds a little bit too well: By its third act, I had grown sufficiently accustomed to the brazenness of its conceit to grow bored with the tissue-thin melodrama of its plotting.
Perhaps this is a sign of my own philistinism, my addiction to the cheap thrills of dialogue. It might well be, as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote in an enraptured review, that “silent cinema really was the purest and most binding incarnation of the medium, one from which we have torn ourselves, to our detriment, ever since.”
But for all its charms, The Artist trades on that nostalgia without ever entirely vindicating it. Hazanavicius sends audiences home happy, but if his movie takes Best Picture, it will be one of those winners that nobody watches twice.