THERE ARE digital utopians who dream of a future on The Cloud, and those who want another new gadget like they want another airport screening.
Both camps will find something to love and to laugh about in “The Artist,” a light, funny silent movie (yes, silent movie) that turns the constant push for new technology into a comedy.
That “The Artist” is a black-and-white, ’20s-era antique replica of a silent movie isn’t merely a gimmick, it’s central to the movie’s march-of-technology theme, told via the travails of a silent film star, George Valentin. (The name channels Valentino, but the performance by Jean Dujardin, channels Gene Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, and others.)
Valentin’s producer (John Goodman) wants Valentin to join the inevitable conversion to sound, but Valentin is a mature, stubborn, establishment star. He decides to stake his future, and his fortune, on a self-financed silent epic.
It’s a foolish gamble that could cost Valentin his celebrity, his money, and by extension his wife (Penelope Ann Miller). In fact, he stands to lose everything but his chauffer (James Cromwell) and his hilariously wise and loyal dog (a Jack Russell Terrier whose performance has sparked talk of a special animal Oscar).
There is a parallel story at work. Just before his star begins to fall, Valentin “discovers” a starlet named Peppy (Berenice Bejo), whose youth and warm embrace of the talkie revolution make her Hollywood’s latest It girl.
Their fates are linked – by the changing face of motion pictures, and ultimately by love. Peppy never forgets Valentin’s generosity, and when we see the title of her new film, “Guardian Angel,” we wonder about the nature of Valentin’s anonymous benefactor. Do they have a future together – Valentin and Peppy, sound and image?
“The Artist” is crammed with references to classic films – there are so many I lost count, but buffs will have a wonderful time ticking them off.
Those who know nothing about the history of cinema will not be shortchanged – “The Artist” can be enjoyed by anyone who loves what is essential about movies. As it turns out (please forward to Michael Bay), it isn’t noise.
Not that we’ll ever have truly silent movies again. The “silent” screening that I attended was marked by the muffled, intermittent electronic burping of a dozen “smart” phones.
Technology marches on.