Singin’ in the Rain, the best movie musical and perhaps the most sheerly exuberant film ever made, tells the story of a silent film star played by Gene Kelly whose career is upended by the arrival of talking pictures. The movie has one and only one serious scene, when Kelly realizes to his shame that he is nothing more than a melodramatic ham on screen. The scene lasts about two minutes before Kelly decides to save his career by becoming a song-and-dance man instead, whereupon he, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds burst into the glorious number “Good Morning.”
The Artist, widely considered the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, is a movie for everyone who ever wanted that single serious two-minute scene in Singin’ in the Rain to last for an hour and forty minutes. It’s almost impossible to dislike The Artist, a sweet backstage tale so gorgeously made and conceived that complaining about it might seem a bit churlish.
It wants nothing more than to be lovable, and to remind you of the power of the movies to tell stories almost entirely through images rather than words. It was the conceit of writer-director Michel Hazanavicius to tell his story about a silent-film star in the manner and style of a silent movie, and the conceit works marvelously—especially because of the inspired casting of a French actor named Jean Dujardin, who truly gives a performance for the ages as the dashing, proud, likable, and wounded George Valentin.
Hazanavicius, whose only previous films were two extremely silly spy parodies that made a lot of money in France, achieves the kind of confident control over every element of his production that marks the arrival of a master director. Every element of The Artist is meticulously rendered, from the sets to the costumes to the vintage movie posters announcing Valentin’s latest work. Photographed in a creamy and lush black-and-white with a dazzling wall-to-wall musical score by Ludovic Bource that manages to evoke almost every kind of movie music you’ve ever heard, The Artist instantly conjures up the kind of absurd happiness that can grip you when you land on an old Hollywood classic on TCM.
But there’s no getting around this fact: The Artist tells exactly the same story as Singin’ in the Rain, except that the interval between its star’s shame and his exhilarating song-and-dance seems to go on forever.
As the movie begins, Valentin is on top of the world at the premiere of his latest epic adventure at a grand Hollywood palace in the year 1927—just as Singin’ in the Rain begins with the premiere of Gene Kelly’s latest picture. On that night Valentin bumps into a journeyman actress (the unimaginably gorgeous Bérénice Bejo, also known as Mrs. Michel Hazanavicius, and lucky for him) and has a flirtation with her, just as Kelly bumps into Debbie Reynolds and has a flirtation with her.
Her name is Peppy Miller. She gets a bit part in his new picture, and in the film’s most inventive sequence, Valentin and Peppy have to dance together for ten seconds—a scene they keep muffing because they are, inexorably, delightfully, and winningly falling in love. But he is married, and years older, and nothing happens.
The arrival of talking pictures turns her from a potential love interest and protégée into a rival when his studio begins grooming her as part of its commitment to new young talent and as he persists in believing the audience that adored his pantomime won’t desert him now that pantomiming is no longer necessary.
It is at this point that The Artist turns from a portrait of a professional melodramatist into a melodrama of its own, and begins to grow tiresome. Hazanavicius turns from Singin’ in the Rain as his inspiration to the heartbreakingly great German silent picture The Last Laugh, made by F. W. Murnau in 1924, about a proud hotel doorman who is cashiered when he grows too old and is so reduced in status that he goes mad. But The Artist is too feather-light to pull off the shift in tone, as evidenced by the fact that it relies on a scene-stealing dog (a Jack Russell terrier named Uggie) to tug at your heartstrings and provide the film with a dramatic climax.
All in all, then, The Artist is a pretty amazing stunt. But a stunt is really all it is.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.