Not so long ago, the boyfriend and I were at the Museum of Science and Industry, and stopped at the silent film exhibit to watch a few short movies. They were basically incomprehensible. Partly because the image quality was somewhat shoddy, making it hard to track the actors' expressions. But also because the narrative was extremely difficult to follow. A caption (intertitle?) would appear, setting the scene, and then a bunch of stuff would happen with no hints as to what it meant, and by the time the next words appeared, we had no idea what had happened. I mention this because one of the most impressive aspects of The Artist is that it is a modern day silent film - something I would not really have thought possible.
The opening beautifully sets this up, showing you a silent film, then panning back to show you the audience watching it (and the orchestra playing the score), then the main actor behind the screen, waiting to take a bow. We are thus subtly introduced to the conventions of silent film. When later in the film, the music stops and then launches into the next piece, you kind of envision an orchestra setting down its instruments and turning the pages on the sheet music. It's kind of great.
What is more, the plot is quite easy to follow, despite the fact that you don't get intertitles for every single piece of dialogue. In a lot of cases, you can actually read the actor's lips pretty easily, especially when you essentially know what is going to be said in a given context anyhow. But a lot gets conveyed purely by the expressiveness of the actors' faces. And it makes you realize what gifted actors some of the modern celebrities we've come to know and love actually are - and much better a showcase this movie is for their talents. James Cromwell is generally plays rather taciturn types ("That'll do pig"), so one forgets what a wonderful face he has, and how much it conveys.
The trope of the person who cannot adjust to the transition from silent films to talkies is, I think, a somewhat cliche one, but what makes The Artist so unique is that it illuminates how gradual that transition actually was, and what was lost in the process. The sound pictures of Peppy Miller appear in the movie without sound, and in the process, you kind of see how much the early talkies still relied on the basic format of silent films - they were silent films with sound, as opposed to contemporary cinema, which is essentially an entirely different format. It made me think of that Walter Benjamin argument about steel; how steel was initially used as a replacement for wood, and only later did people come to understand that it could be used to make completely new inventions that no one had ever dreamed of. I think the same could be said for sound in film - early cinema only gradually figured out what it wanted to do, and perhaps one could say it is still figuring that out. This movie, by illuminating some of the advantages of silence, makes the stakes more apparent.
It also, subtly, points out how much more open silent films were to foreign actors. American audiences are probably unfamiliar with Berenice Bejo, the charming star of The Artist. But her filmography on imdb spans for pages - it's just that most Americans don't watch French films. And it's their loss, because she's a delightful actress. She has the most wonderful face - you absolutely fall in love with her from the very beginning, and because it's a silent film, you pay attention to her features in a way you probably wouldn't, in a talkie (also, incidentally, an argument for seeing the movie on the big screen).
The story itself is, as I've said already, a rather worn trope, and it's not an especially new spin on it. It's the form of its delivery that is so fantastic - the medium is the message. The people who gushed over Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds as a love letter to cinema would do well to watch The Artist and see what such a love letter looks like when done properly. It's a tour de force - a wonderful, thought-provoking movie about movies.