Firstly, yes, it is a silent film. Mostly. Sort of. More of my review (with possible spoilers) under the jump…
I think it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t quite truly a silent film. So much of its press has focused upon the fact that it’s a black and white silent film that is being nominated for awards. This, in the 21st century! etc., etc.
At first, I thought that as well. I like silent films (see my take on the 1926 Faust). One instance of sound in The Artist I thought was interestingly done – George Valentin is having a nightmare after seeing his wife’s sound test… he dreams that he hears noise, but his voice has gone. So in the film itself we get him mouthing words, but we can hear his glass being set down on the table, his dog barking, the giggle of the dancers walking by his dressing room… and then he wakes up, and everything’s back to normal.
Where I have issues with the film is in its ending. George and Peppy Miller are tap dancing for a new musical production, and when the scene ends and pans out to the director and cameramen, suddenly you can hear the director shouting ‘Cut!’ and then the exclamations of the producer, and the noise of the studio. And finally, we get to hear George Valentin speak. When asked if they can do the scene over, he says ‘It would be my pleasure.’
This ending seems as if they decided to do a wink and nod, nudge nudge to the viewer, ‘See, look, we made a silent film about silent films!’. I think the ending would have been just as strong if it had ended without resorting to a ‘talkie’.
But, to the film itself.
Sometimes the characters seemed a bit cliché, as if the writer had certain archetypes in mind. I found George Valentin reasonably likable, though his self-absorption made me want to smack him on occasion as he played the big star. I didn’t feel all too sorry for him when he fell from his pedestal. Peppy Miller was charming, with the feel of an All-American girl who gets the big break (though the actress herself is Argentinian; the great thing about silent film is that it doesn’t matter what language the actors speak). John Goodman hams it up, and James Cromwell is perfect as Valentin’s driver, Clifton.
The film chronicles the silent film’s height and subsequent slide into obsolescence with the emergence of the talking pictures. I loved the 1920s-30s feel, with well done wardrobes and sets. I was taken with the costumes and loved the women’s drop-waist dresses and cloche hats. Valentin was smartly dressed, whether in tuxedo or just a casual sweater vest and trousers. The attention to detail for the time period helped make the film.
I loved the brief cameo by Malcolm McDowell in the line of extras at the film studio, encouraging the young Peppy Miller. Not quite a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him moment, but I had hoped he’d show up again.
My overall verdict: go see the film. It’s well worth it, even with the disappointing switch into a talkie at the end.