MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS likes trying on different eras for size. Known primarily for OSS 117, his cheeky parody of 1960s spy movies, the French director's gotten more serious, and consequently more charming, with his latest. The Artist is the story of a silent film actor in decline, told as an actual silent film. It sounds gimmicky, and sort of is, but the sincerity of the delivery and the attention to detail make for a winning re-creation of a bygone age.
Set in the late 1920s, Hazanavicius' OSS superspy Jean Dujardin stars as matinee idol George Valentin. At the premiere of his latest romp, Valentin crosses paths with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a lovely would-be actress with enough gumption to deserve her name. George gives her a leg up, and she falls for the mustachioed devil. Talkies rise while the stock market falls, and when George insists audiences don't want to "see me talk," his career flounders. It's up to Peppy to fight for his pride... and his heart. Awwww.
Outside of a few key scenes of dialogue and sound effects, The Artist stays true to the aesthetics and techniques of silent cinema. Within the square black-and-white frame, the story plays out with only music and dialogue cards. Both Dujardin and Bejo are fetching, and Hazanavicius never demands they go too far with their imitation, avoiding caricature or parody. Plot-wise, The Artist mirrors A Star Is Born and other melodramatic narratives of early Hollywood fairly well—perhaps too well, as the movie goes on too long, lingering in the more obvious third act rather than moving quickly toward the inevitable happy ending. Still, Hazanavicius has plenty to say about changing times and the purity of expression, so sticking to his guns only serves to justify The Artist's message.