It is an unusual factoid that the only two silent films to win Best Picture at the Oscars are Wings, which won the first one ever, and The Artist, which came out in 2011. The fact that a film in the modern era was made as a silent film, although truth be told it is not completely silent, is odd enough as is, but it also feels sort of gimmicky, like something somebody would make for their senior thesis project in college. However, despite that fact, the movie won a bunch of awards, including Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius, and Best Actor for Jean Dujardin.
Most film fanatics, or at least folks who majored in film in college, are familiar with silent movies and have probably seen a couple of Charlie Chaplin pictures. That doesn't keep The Artist from being a bit jarring, although one gets used to it after a little while. Even though the film runs 100 minutes, it moves forward with good pace. This may be because the film stuffs a lot of plot in there. If you can't talk, you can't really let scenes play out or settle in. You've got to work at an accellerated pace, which this movie does while still managing to not get ahead of itself.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a major silent film star, while Bernice Bejo, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but did not win, plays Peppy Miller, an ingenue with stars in her eyes. Also, there is a dog you might remember for all those commericals and press appearances. People sure do love dogs. The movie begins in 1927, and so if you know your film history you probably know what's going to happen. Sound comes in, Valentin doesn't evolve with the medium, and his life takes a tumble while, at the same time, Miller's star is on the rise.
It feels very strange that this movie is often categorized in places such as Netflix as a "comedy." It is not a comedy. Sure, it has comedic moments, but it is a melodrama. Hazanavicius himself has said this, as melodramas, what with all their emoting, hold up best as silent movies. The plot provides few surprises, but that doesn't mean it isn't handled reasonably well. The acting is good. I don't know if a silent role should have won Best Actor, but he did a good job. Bejo also does well.
This movie did not need to be silent, and it probably would have been served better to have been made more traditionally. The black-and-white is one thing, but you truly lose something when there is no sound. It really is just a film-making exercise. It hurts the film. It doesn't stop it from being enjoyable, but something is lost, and the silent factor doesn't really impact the storytelling in a unique or positive way all that often. Then again, you probably couldn't have had two French folks as the leads then, but that's neither here nor there.
If you have a sense of film history, than this movie has a ton in it for you. It is steeped in old Hollywood. The plot calls to mind many films, Singin' In the Rain, A Star is Born, the films of Rin Tin Tin, and the swashbuckling movies of the likes of Douglas Fairbanks. There was also a bit of scuttlebutt when Kim Novak made some, shall we say, over the top statements about the Vertigo theme being used. When you watch the film, it makes total sense why it was used, it's just part of a piece, and Novak's qualms were quite silly.
The Artist is a good film. A Best Picture worthy film? That's a stretch, but honorable folks can differ. It's entertaining enough and somewhat interesting in terms of construction, but the way they decided to make the film can't help but make it feel somewhat hollow. In the end, if you want to watch a film directed by Hazanavicius, starring Dujardin, and co-starring Bejo, then you may be better served going with OSS 117: Cairo, a Nest of Spies. Not only is it an actual comedy, but the people in the movie talk. Sure, they speak French, but it's something.