March 18 2013 12:00 AM

'The Artist': Get ready to cheer for a silent movie


“I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” vows actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in a climactic scene in “A Russian Affair,” one of several movies-within-a-movie in director Michael Hazanavicius' “The Artist.” For George, keeping that promise will be tricky; for Hazanavicius, working without many spoken words results in a quietly spectacular film.

“The Artist,” as you might have heard, it’s merely set in the final days of silent movies: It’s actually presented as a largely silent film, with Ludovic Bource’s lively score and a few interstitials (or title cards) in place of dialogue. It sounds like a silly stunt, but Hazanavicius and his wonderful cast take the concept far beyond mere gimmickry.

“The Artist” even manages to achieve an unexpected and fascinating timeliness in its snapshot of a culture forced to reinvent itself. How many businesses have faded out because they weren’t able to leap into the Internet Age? And how many web-based companies folded when they couldn’t keep up with the changing demands of their customers? “The Artist” isn’t so much about Hollywood as it is a study in the challenges of adaptation, a struggle many of us have had to face in the last decade.

In “The Artist,” George — who has become what used to be called a “matinee idol,” along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks or John Gilbert — clings to the comfortable world of the silent screen, convincing himself that talking pictures are merely a fad, soon to fall out of favor. As his star dims, his former co-star, Peppy Miller (Brnice Bejo) swiftly rises from chorus girl and bit part player to become a sought-after leading lady. After all, she’s “young, pretty and talking!,” according to her publicity and, as they used to say in the 1920s, youth will be served.

Those who haven’t seen many full-length features from the silent age may not realize how much emoting the superstars of the 1920s had to do. It was truly a different style of performing than we know today, a form that relied on larger-than-life expressions and bold physicality. Many of the biggest names of the silent era, for one reason or another, couldn’t make the transition to “talkies”: The big emotions and broad gestures that had once been hailed as great acting suddenly looked ridiculous when the addition of sound brought a new sense of reality and immediacy to cinema.

“The Artist” fondly honors the staples of pre-sound movies, from the eye-rolling, hip-swinging flappers to the (pardon the pun) doggedly faithful four-legged companions often found at the hero’s side: Uggie, an endearing Jack Russell Terrier, is much more than merely canine comic relief here — he actually plays a substantial role in the story. Rin Tin Tin would be proud.

Combining equal parts of “A Star is Born” and “Singing in the Rain,” Hazanavicius’ screenplay is a vehicle for Dujardin and Bejo to show off their impressive array of talents, from his beguiling, Chaplinesque clowning to her spirited tap dancing. Their performances are splendidly in the style of the era: The emotions are slightly amplified, but not wildly overblown, and the tenderness in their scenes together comes through loud and clear, even though you can’t hear a word they’re saying.