French director Michel Hazanavicius makes movies for movie buffs—up to a point. His two OSS 117 spy spoofs are packed with film references and direct parody; his latest, the Cannes-acclaimed black-and-white silent feature The Artist, consciously draws on decades of Hollywood features. But for viewers who will get all the in-jokes and call-outs, the film may seem too familiar. There’s a fine line between homage and just repeating well-known stories.
OSS 117 star Jean Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes for this role) brings his usual million-dollar smile to the role of a silent-cinema star who’s on top of the world until the advent of talkies, which he dismisses as a fad, leaving the world to pass him by. Meanwhile, a starstruck fan he meets in a crowd (Bérénice Bejo) rockets to stardom, but never forgets her crush on him, and continues to admire him from afar (and sometimes a-near) as he slides toward irrelevance. Hazanavicius scripts and directs broadly; as with classic silent features, the emotions are meant to play clearly even without dialogue, but even so, Hazanavicius sometimes overplays his hand with lead-footed symbolism. One particularly obvious scene has Dujardin and Bejo stopping for a bittersweet conversation on a Hollywood studio stairwell; he’s headed down and out of the building, she’s going up and in, but they pause for a moment in the middle, with him looking up soulfully at her newly lofty position. Later, a shot of his latest movie poster, lying discarded in the rain and being stepped on by oblivious passers-by, offers a similarly corny summary of his situation.
That said, Hazanavicius never set out to be subtle; the opening shot of Dujardin, playing the hero in a movie-within-a-movie, being interrogated and stolidly proclaiming that the baddies can’t make him talk, ably lays out the film’s wink-wink self-awareness and sense of humor. As with the OSS films, catching the many references is part of the fun: The story meshes Singin’ In The Rain with A Star Is Born by way of Buster Keaton, the soundtrack covers the gamut from silent classics to Alfred Hitchcock, and even Dujardin’s ubiquitous cute-dog companion recalls The Thin Man. And by nature, The Artist is a charming romance, in which two naturally winning people are denied what they want just long enough to make audiences feel satisfied when everyone’s needs are finally met. It’s a beautifully shot, beautifully acted piece of fluff.