It's the Oscar-winning silent film from 2011. It's also French, but you'd never guess because it's set in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s and has a few well-known English-language stars in the supporting cast and/or in cameos, e.g. John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell. It charmed the world, it seems, and it is indeed very likeable.
I don't think it quite works, but it's fascinating to watch and I'd love to see this production team make more silent films. Saying "it doesn't quite work" might seem harsh for a film so loved and critically esteemed, but I bet if Hazanavicius et al went on to make a dozen silent films, we'd be looking back at The Artist and saying "well, it was their first one, wasn't it?"
I'll be talking about the ending, by the way, so beware spoilers. Sorry.
The fact that this exists is magnificent. Hats off to everyone for making a silent film in the 21st century and for being so gloriously successful with it. I love that. Silent films are great. What's more, Hazanavicius has clearly thought hard about the difference between silent cinema and talkies. He's using silent storytelling so deftly that he hardly needs any intertitles at all. There are shots and set-ups here so clever that they're a joy to witness, regardless of the fact that this is a silent film. Berenice Bejo seducing herself with a jacket. Jean Dujardin's reflection in the pawn shop window, superimposed over his dinner jacket. The dream sequence (well, it had to be) where Dujardin's dropping things on his dressing table and reacting with shock at the noises they make.
It's melodrama and being played as such. The lighting and shot composition is often straight from the 1920s, although Tomoko thought the illusion was spoiled by the lack of visual noise. (If this bothers you, imagine that it's a modern restoration.) Similarly the actors have perfect faces, from Mr Ears (surely that's CGI or prosthetics?) to the lugubriousness of James Cromwell, the larger-than-life John Goodman (who seemed shockingly old, by the way) or most obviously the two main characters. Berenice Bejo in particular has a fascinating face. She's stunningly attractive, but in a unique way that made Tomoko call her ugly.
Above all, they're playing it big. The cast know what they're being asked to do and they're walking a tightrope. On the one side, silent-era ham. On the other, understated modernism. Either extreme would have been fatal, but the performances have largely an appropriate amount of enhanced vigour. Dujardin and Bejo set the screen alight with so much personality that you'll believe these people could be the greatest movie stars on the planet. I still don't know whether or not Bejo's character can act as such, mind you, while it's clear that Dujardin's can't. However that doesn't matter. They're irrepressible. They're the people you want to be with and want to watch. They blaze. That really is a key movie star quality, by the way.
I just don't think that they're entirely successful.
Even an old hand like John Goodman isn't flawless, for instance. His last shot of fist-shaking triumph looks forced to me. Bejo is great, obviously, but I don't think Dujardin is achieving everything the film needed. Much of his performance is charm and mannerisms. That's the character and it's appropriate, yes, but it still means that we're looking at charm and mannerisms. The shot where he wakes up from a dream doesn't feel lived-in, I think, while much later, in his darkest hour, (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS), I didn't believe for a moment that that I was looking at a suicidal man. Imagine a version of this film that loses the last ten minutes and Dujardin really does blow his brains out. It would be rubbish, wouldn't it? It's almost weightless. It's just melodrama, which is fine, but I don't think it's even particularly convincing on that level. Dujardin's character also comes across as a bit of an idiot when he's fleeing in... um, something, I think, even though technically his stand is more than justifiable. The film isn't really trying to sell us on the darkness of what he's going through. He's going mad! Yes, the Room of Sheets is a bit creepy and is indeed suggestive of a stalker, but we know she's nice really and we know it'll all end happily ever after.
While I'm on the subject, the storyline's fairly trivial, too. We know at a glance what's going to happen. The Hero and the Girl are surely going to end up together, so obviously there's going to be a break-up with the Unsympathetic Wife. We even know how it's going to happen. (That said, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the scene in which Penelope Ann Miller's sincerely trying to talk and it's Dujardin who's coming across as the bad guy. That felt real.)
To be honest, I don't think this would be a particularly good film if you stripped it of its silent movie trappings. It would be charming, but also fairly thin. I think it's effectively a party piece, showing off with the medium instead of really doing anything meaty with it, but is that so bad? It's a silent film and downright adorable in its inventiveness and love for what it is. I love the simplicity of showing a failed film with a nearly empty cinema, for instance. It's obvious in hindsight, but there's still pleasure in seeing such an important plot point conveyed so neatly, in a single visual. See also the heaven-like dazzlingly white hospital. And of course the two leads are lovely. More, please!