Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin and Berenice Bejo is Peppy Miller, actors whose careers are going in different directions, in "The Artist."
It's odd to go to a theater and watch a black-and-white silent movie in 2011. You feel as if you should drive there in your horseless carriage with a stop at the speakeasy to don a "Votes for Women" sash.
Once the film in question, "The Artist," begins, you will occasionally become aware of how eerily quiet a room full of people can be. The film has music, but until the end, there are no lines spoken by the actors. When they finally speak, it's jarring, and you're reminded just how deep into its world "The Artist" has pulled you.
Jean Dujardin plays silent film star George Valentin, who has all the right moves in the mid-1920s. He's the George Clooney or Brad Pitt of his day, with agents and producers at his beck and call, and women flocking to his suave, tuxedoed form. One of those women is young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who uses a tabloid photo of herself getting a kiss on the cheek from Valentin to jumpstart her own Hollywood career. When talkies come in, French-accented George's star falls, and the aptly named Peppy rises. Watch for numerous scenes showing her running up the stairs while he trudges down, their very walking directions showing their career trajectories.
For a while, George's adorable dog and co-star is the only one who sticks by him, but tides and trends naturally change again. After one scene so dramatic that a woman in our audience broke the silence by screaming out "JESUS!" things actually turn around, and the film's happy ending feels earned and uplifting.
The film makes a few jokes at its own expense -- the very first scene shows George, in a film, being tortured with sound for refusing to speak. And it provokes discussion too -- who doesn't know someone who's refused to or been unable to move with the times when a new innovation breaks up the career that's served them well? Newspaper journalists know what I'm talking about.
"Singin' in the Rain," "A Star Is Born," "Sunset Boulevard" and other films may pop into your head as you watch this tale of how fast a star can fall, but "The Artist" feels original and yes, a little magical. You may think you'll never enjoy a silent film, but give yourself the chance to try.
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