This tragicomic look at the end of the silent movie era is noteworthy for actually being a silent movie, shot on black and white with the old aspect radio of late '20s/early '30s cinema, complete with title cards, old-fashioned transitions, and a sweet musical score that is (mostly) reminiscent of the era.
France's Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a top silent star who suddenly finds his fortunes changing when the "talkies" come around and he is not suited for them. Strangely, the story doesn't acknowledge the likely reason why a dashing actor like Valentin would be doomed by sound: If he's anything like Dujardin, his French accent would have been too thick and indecipherable for the post-silent era. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed this would be obvious to those in their native France but didn't consider the American audiences unfamiliar with Dujardin.
Playing a rising star who owes her big break to Valentin is Bérénice Bejo, whose character is supposed to be an all-American girl next door even though Bejo is obviously Gallic. But Bejo's own likely bad English isn't an issue because guess what! The Artist is a silent movie! Actually, the film's awareness of the benefits of being dialogue-free is one of its greatest pleasures, and writer/director Hazanavicius mines it for all it's worth.
Shot in Hollywood with a mixed French and American cast (including John Goodman, Penelope Anne Miller, and James Cromwell), The Artist may owe more of its visual style to Citizen Kane than to anything made between 1927 and 1932, when the film is set, but who cares? It's lovely to look at and fun to watch.
It does take a while to get into, though. At first it seems like nothing more than an exercise in style, and even for someone like me who has actually gone to see silent movies in the theatre many times, it's hard not to think, at first, "Will I be able to sit through this all without squirming?" But once the second act kicks in with a very clever sequence, The Artist gets its hooks in you, and you're reminded that a movie doesn't need any of the trappings of modern technology to still win hearts.
It may not be the best film of 2011, but it's one of the best, and it offers the rare opportunity to live like our grandparents (or great-grandparents) and experience the joy of watching a brand new silent film. That's something which – excluding Mel Brooks' semi-funny 1976 Silent Movie and the odd Guy Maddin experiment – we haven't been able to do since Chaplin caved in and started talking.