Michel Hazanavicius' effortlessly charming dramedy is really like discovering a lost film from the silent age. The director of the popular French OSS 117 spy spoof series recreates every aspect of a black and white silent film of the 1920s. From the classic 1.37:1 aspect ratio to the title cards to the dramatic pitch, he gets all the details right. His performers nail the acting style, which is a key to the film's success. But it's not just a gimmick. It's a reminder that sometimes words get in the way of visual storytelling.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES) is the biggest silent movie star. During the red carpet for his latest international action film, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, A KNIGHT'S TALE), a pretty young fan looking for an autograph. Embarrassed at first, soon she's posing for the cameras along with Valentin. The next day she goes to the studio looking to get a job as an extra and lands a role in Valentin's next picture. He is so charmed by the young woman that he flubs scenes just so he can dance with her over and over again.
The problem is that Valentin is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller, CARLITO'S WAY), a prune-faced woman who seems constantly perturbed with her husband even when he and his trained dog are being utterly irresistible. Peppy moves on and gets better and better parts. Meanwhile, studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) shows Valentin a test of a sound film. Valentin laughs it off as a fad, but Zimmer sees it as the future. Defiantly, Valentin goes out on his own and produces a new silent adventure. But then the stock market crashes even worse than his film does and he is broke.
Dujardin, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this performance, is a big star in France and one can see why here. He has screen presence like any movie star of the Golden Age or today. He performs in the more conscious style of 1920s and 30s. For his films within the film, he mugs it, but contrasts that with a more honest performance for his character's downward spiral. Bejo is his equal and even has the more difficult role. Her character is plucky in that way that only 1930s film ingénues were. She doesn't hold back and goes for it without a moment of self doubt that she might come off corny. Their dedication to what Hazanavicius is trying to do is crucial to why I fell in love with this film.
Hazanavicius uses imagery that just doesn't work the same way it would if there were dialogue we heard. After sadly watching his old films, Valentin curses the man he has become as his shadow appears on the screen. He literally is a shadow of the man he once was. Watch the melodramatic direction Hazanavicius uses during a scene where Valentin frantically pulls sheets off hidden treasures from his past. In any other film, this scene would have come off over-the-top, but in this one it has a power in a purely cinematic way.
As true to the silent era style Hazanavicius is, he doesn't make this film in a vacuum. He has fun with the conceit right from the first title card. Valentin is being tortured in his action film and the title card reads, "No I won't talk!" He has a great deal of fun with Valentin's bad dream about talkies. And Valentin's resentful co-star Constance (Missi Pyle, GALAXY QUEST) uses a gesture that certainly wouldn't have been in a 20s flick, but does convey her feelings quite well without words.
And I would be remiss to not mention two other performances. James Cromwell (BABE) is the perfect steady figure as Valentin's dedicated chauffeur Clifton. Uggie is one of the breakout performers of the year. He plays Valentin's dedicated Jack Russell terrier, who hits his cues like a comic genius. There hasn't been a dog this charismatic since his screen soulmate Asta from the THIN MAN series graced the screen.
Despite being a black and white silent film, this is accessible to a wide audience even across language barriers. It establishes its characters through comedy and romance and then connects us with them through tragedy. Like the films that inspired it, emotions move quickly in melodramatic ways, but that is part of its soul and its allure. Like a vintage movie poster would have said – You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll fall in love!