Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
Would you believe that nobody has this image in 4:3? And that one person cropped it to 2.35:1?

Okay, I can’t lie to you: it is nearly impossible for me to review The Artist. See, when I sit down to watch a movie to review it, I’m doing my best to keep countless areas of my mind engaged at once. Part of me is watching the editing, part of me is watching the cinematography, part of me is evaluating how the music supports the emotion of the picture. A lot of me is caught in the performances and the direction, evaluating the part of my critical mind acting as the engine of the car by reacting emotionally to the entire thing. I both have to be affected by this movie and tell you exactly how and why it affected me. And with The Artist, I failed at half of that.

I was affected. I was wholly affected, I was nearly moved to tears, I laughed great belly laughs and guffaws of joy. The Artist touched me in a way that only six films have this year, and The Artist was one of two to move me in such a specific way that I can’t tell you exactly what did it. Everything in this movie is utterly perfect from start to finish, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you why. Let’s just get on with the show of picking it apart, shall we? It’s nearly impossible to do so, and it’s entirely impossible to take the joy out of this movie. It’d be like trying to take the metal out of a knife–even if you managed it, you’re not holding a knife anymore. (I’m finally playing Portal 2, expect a lot of dissimiles.)

The Artist is the story of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a rakish, handsome, debonair presence onscreen who makes all the ladies swoon and the men jealous. He’s accustomed to playing the hero in almost every feature his producer (John Goodman) puts him in. Indeed, it’s while promoting his latest spy feature that he is accidentally joined in front of the press photographers by young dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). He and Peppy strike it off immediately, to the ire of his wife back at home. Peppy is so inspired by her brush with stardom that she attends an open audition at the backlot the next day, landing a role as a dancing girl in the background of another feature.

Around the same time as Peppy’s ensuing rise to fame, George is brought into a meeting with the studio heads and producers. He sits down for a test reel of Romeo and Juliet with one of his old costars as Juliet–where she recites her balcony monologue into a rather conspicuous microphone. The era of sound is on the horizon, and due to his nationality, George will be out of a job when the change is made. (You can safely assume from his last name that he’s one of a large number of silent film actors who were foreigners whose accents didn’t matter in the age before sound.) George, a proud man, says that the era of silent films will never come to an end and that sound will never have the magic of a silent movie.

And indeed, as it applies to the movie he’s starring in without his knowledge, he’s right. It’s sort of an open secret at the moment that The Artist is a movie released in black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio, without a voice soundtrack. You get no colour, you get no widescreen anything, you don’t even get sound. All you have to interact with are the music, the old-timey title cards for occasional dialogue and the expressions in the actors’ bodies. Let me tell you, as a viewing experience with a full house in the theater, this was absolutely divine. Within minutes of the picture starting, the entire house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. We all sat, awestruck at this picture, afraid that the smallest noise would destroy the illusion, thus driving us even deeper into the story and the characters.

It’s certainly not a hindrance that The Artist has such an emotionally moving story and such charming, engaging characters. I’ve never seen either of the leads in other projects, but they carry this picture with grace, determination and that old-fashioned charm that’s so lacking in our leading ladies and gents these days. Everyone, including and especially the dog, was spectacular and absolutely divine. If it weren’t for this film’s depth of greytones due to being converted from colour film, you could honestly and easily mistake it for another fantastic silent film of the era, but for a few recognizable faces.

The Artist is one of two nostalgia periods regarding the Jazz Age in my top films of 2011. I don’t know what that says about our society or about these movies, but I know that as a human being entirely incapable of finding a single worthy feature of nostalgia, The Artist carried me away to a land where motion pictures still had magic, still had that wonder of a brand new novelty. And if it took a little intentional aging and dating of the movie to do so, then let the film be all the more aged and dated. Rediscovering the joy in cinemas roots is never something I can fault. FOUR STARS

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