Few movies touch me as much as did the movie The Artist. It is a dramatic, sweeping, and utterly beautiful treatment of the transition between the era of silent films to the “talkies” of the 1930s and 40s. It joins, then, other contemporary films, such as Hugo, in its self-reflexive examination of the history, development, and significance of cinema (and even in the way the story is often told). It is a modern masterpiece which shows the truly timeless character of greatness in art, even when it lacks the new and modern techniques that make most movies attention-getting.
The movie follows the acting career of George Valentin, who is portrayed as the premiere silent movie actor of his time. His career cannot but go up. But the movie begins with what seems an entirely chance event - the meeting of George Valentin with his amorous fan, Peppy Miller, who bumps into him outside of one of his films. Her love with George drives her to join the acting world herself, which takes her down a road which unintentionally leads to the demise of George’s livelihood. Her own meteoric rise in stardom parallels the steps of George’s collapse into irrelevancy, both to the movie world, with the rise of the talkies, and even to his own wife, who abandons him. His life continues in silence and cellulose, as he has never known anything else, while he struggles against the inevitable onslaught of sound that threatens his existence. Eventually, the irrelevancy extends to George’s own perception of himself in what is a very dark suicide scene in the midst of otherworldly “comic-book” style story-telling.
The very style of the story-telling is compelling from the get-go, sharing in the very film-style it attempts to analyze. It immerses you in the fairy-tale world of 1920s silent films, where people are larger than life and all action occurs on carefully scripted little squares of cellulose. The era's special effects are intentional and – usually – painstakingly done by hand on the film strip itself, much as the actors themselves must practice incredible discipline in true acting by making their emotions and reactions perfectly visible in their faces and bodies. The story is told very much in this fashion and gains its traction precisely because it is so engaging.
The movie takes the audience into every conceivable emotion with a medium that shows its effectiveness very clearly even in a modern audience used to CGI graphics and surround stereo sound. Silence is just as immersive, and can be even more so than these special effects; this fact is brought clearly to bear in a climactic early scene where George visualizes the future of films with sound which comes quite close to (but masterfully avoids) breaking the fourth wall. Jean Dujardin does a marvelous job of playing this dynamic character, for whom every gesture carries with it a mountain of significance.
It is truly art in moving form. I'd be hard-pressed to choose between The Artist or Hugo. So, my advice: see two films instead.