The Artist (2011) **


So yes, it's a silent movie about silent movies, and if that rings any postmodern warning bells, don't worry. There are occasional sequences that play intertextually with the forms, constraints and conventions of silent film-making, but they do so cleverly and effectively. (In particular, in one of the film's two equally effective uses of recorded sound, there is a nightmare sequence in which the main character, tormented by the advent of talkies, dreams himself in a world where real sound is all around him but in which he still cannot talk. As he runs from a Hollywood bungalow suddenly alive with terrifying ambient noise, the film briefly plunges him into a forbidding open space of Antonioniesque alienation, as a gaggle of grotesque, Felliniesque flappers go loudly by, and a falling feather reverberates monstrously as it hits the ground. The threat of sound and speech is constantly evoked: the first line of dialogue we read, spoken by the actor in character, in a film in which he is being tortured by dastardly villains, is "I won't talk!"; later, his career over, his wife begins a conversation about their dire circumstances by saying "we must talk".)
There are a few other moments like this, such as when, at the premiere of the star's latest action film, we cut from him trapped in a cell to him having already escaped via the audience's reaction - first shock then overwhelming delight - at a plot twist we never actually get to see. But they do not in any way disrupt the tone of, or push too far into knowing pastiche, a film that for the remaining 90% of the time is not remotely self-reflective but an entirely authentic utilisation of silent storytelling techniques and ravishingly stylish black and white photography, all offered up in the sacred Academy ratio which, as Hazanvicius reminds us, walking heroically into the wind, is "perfect for actors" because it gives them "a presence, a power, a strength. They occupy all the space of the screen."
There's nothing postmodern about the effect whereby the actor, now down and out, pauses to look longingly at a tuxedo in a shop window, his image on in the glass directly in line so that his reflection appears to be wearing it. That could have come straight from a Chaplin movie, and if Chaplin had done it we'd still be talking about it today.

The only real negative note is struck nowhere in the film itself but in the very juxtaposition it represents, and forces you to confront, and in the accordingly gauche, 'gee shucks, who'd have thought it!' tone of even the most appreciative reviews. How amazing! The film that's so charming it made us happy to sit through a silent, black and white film and still, you know, really enjoy it like it was a proper movie! It's got title cards you have to read instead of dialogue, and yet it's so cute, and we're so cute, we loved it!
Actually there are hundreds of films you'd love just as much if you'd only let them into your life. They're called silent films, and they're all like this.