There's no particular reason The Artist should work. It's a predominantly silent film, in black and white, with lead actors you likely haven't seen before. And yet, it's delightful, simply lovely, a tribute to the magic that occasionally takes place when inspiration meets resources.
The year is 1927, and silent films are still all the rage. Actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of his game, he's got a grilled cheese eating grin, a chauffeur, and a cute little dog that appears in all his movies with him. Those films are big and broad, appealing to the masses. For example, he stars in A German Affair to follow up on his hit film A Russian Affair. The toast of the town, that's George.
One day George is taking photos with his adoring fans, when a girl catches is eye. The photographers go crazy for the pairing, her name is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and they make the front cover of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?" As you can imagine, George's wife is none too pleased. But it's just another charmed day in the life of the silent film star, and he dutifully reports to work the next day ... only to find Peppy has been cast as an extra! She captures the attention of a producer (John Goodman) who immediately berates her for stealing the thunder of the film he's releasing, as George and Peppy's impromptu photo session stole the front page from him. George intercedes on her behalf, and they film a scene together. They are clearly smitten, the chemistry palpable, and as he leaves the set she attempts to arrange a liaison with him in his dressing room. He's her hero, you see, and she wants to be near him, in the manner of all initial and overwhelming attraction. George happens upon her, gives her some friendly advice on her career, and then the chauffeur interrupts.
Alas, he's married, and she's on her way up in the game, so their interaction is short lived. Unfortunately for George, trouble is a brewing, and it's coming in the form of talking. George is a silent film expert, and he rejects the idea of talking in his movies, leaving him dangerously out of touch. Conversely, Peppy's career is starting to gain real steam, partly thanks to George and his advice.
The Artist unfolds in the typical silent film fashion, as George and Peppy head in disparate career trajectories, and by 1931 George has become a husk of his former self. The film has a few central themes running through it, how change comes to us all, how our pride interferes with matters of the heart, how stubbornness masquerading as strength can sap one's vitality. But most of all it's the story of George and Peppy. Can they make it work? Are they star crossed? Could George's little Jack Russell Terrier be any cuter? And so on. The Artist conjures a time of happiness without subtext or irony, when what you saw was essentially what you got at the movies. Mugging for the camera was the only way to truly get over with a story, but things were bound to change, and commerce waits for no man.
Recent movies such as Wall-E have executed a nearly flawless "silent" film experience, but nothing is quite the throwback that The Artist is. By rousing a forgotten medium director Michel Hazanavicius has given us a little gift of cinema. Form did follow function at the movies, and it is an understatement to say that sound has helped the industry, but The Artist, with its charm, verve, and timing is a real treat. Highly recommended for any serious fan of cinema, The Artist says it best when it says nothing at all.