"I won't talk!" screams silent screen star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in the opening of the film within a film concept that The Artist occasionally fosters. Directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius, who came to fame with his spy films, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, The Artist is, in many ways, similar to another celebrated 2011 film, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, in that it showcases an homage to the Golden Age of cinema: The silent film era. In 1927, George Valentin is the god of the silver screen. With his loyal dog as a frequent co-star, no woman is immune to the charms of Valentin, especially not Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, also Hazanavicius' wife), a lowly extra in 1927, who rises to the top of the audio-laden movie industry by 1929--with the subtle help of Valentin.
When the two first meet, it is after one of Valentin's film premieres, in which he hogs most of the spotlight from his leading woman, Constance (Missi Pyle, who probably never thought she would find herself in an Oscar-nominated movie). Once George goes outside to greet his adoring horde of fans, Peppy accidentally runs into him after she tries to pick her autograph book up off the floor. When a paparazzo snaps a photo of Peppy kissing George on the cheek, her stint as an extra becomes a thing of the past (much to the dismay of George's wife, who reads the headline "Who's That Girl?" the next morning).
From this point forward, the stories of Miller and Valentin present a divergent parallel, one in which her star rises as his rapidly wanes. But, upon performing a scene with Valentin while still working as an extra, Miller realizes how drawn to him she is, and, likewise, him to her. When he finds her in his dressing room pretending his coat is groping her (it comes across as cute not creepy), Valentin tells her that if she wants to be an actress, she must do something to stand out. It is then that he pencils in a fake mole above her lip (it comes across as masculinely assertive, not gay). Before things between them can escalate, Valentin's chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell), interrupts to show Valentin the apology gift he requested be picked up for his wife. It is then that Miller and Valentin part ways, never to cross paths again until Miller rises through the ranks of the film credits, ultimately landing a contract with Kinograph Studios--the same studio that is about to fire Valentin now that silent movies have become a thing of the past.
As Valentin clings to the notion of the talkies being a fad, he finances a silent film with his own money. This is when we begin to understand the plight of the anachronistic profession, just as well as we did with Gloria Swanson in the iconic role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (Swanson herself a victim of being dubbed irrelevant after the end of the silent film era). Valentin is someone so prideful and so accustomed to getting his way, that the prospect of losing the only job he was ever made for is completely unacceptable to him. As sound forges full speed ahead so, too, does the unique and impeccable sound editing of The Artist. Once Valentin is informed of sound becoming a possibility, he storms into his dressing room, knocking items over that suddenly have sound effects--his worst nightmare come to life.
As Valentin finally embraces his spiral, particularly in one scene where his wife says--via an intertitle, of course--"George, I'm not happy," to which he replies, "Millions of us aren't," the only true comfort he can find is in the loyalty of his dog, Jack (Uggie, who, yes, has won the Palm Dog Award at the Cannes Film Festival). One of the most excruciating portions of the film to watch, in fact, involves Jack pleading with his master to refrain from blowing his brains out. It is also an example of the incredible score provided by Ludovic Bource, who tugs at our heartstrings at his discretion through the artful use of his music throughout the film.
With Peppy as George's sole hope for salvation, a love story fit only for the melodrama of the silent era is crafted. But the question remains: Can anything truly mend the hole in George's heart that was carved out by the loss of his desired occupation? The answer leads me to think that maybe Rudolph Valentino was better off dying in 1926 at the age of 31 before suffering the advent of sound and the onset of depression.