This is as good a movie as I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see. And it’s such a surprise.
It’s filmed in black and white and as a silent film, about a silent film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose name suggests Valentino and who looks enough like Douglas Fairbanks to pass as Zorro — the first Zorro — in a film clip. It’s not totally silent, though, and the occasional break-throughs to sound are so clever and witty you could squeeze them tight with happy gratitude. And then there’s the brilliant use here and there of silent film captions like the one where … well, you’ll have to see it to believe it.
In 1927, Valentin, at the cusp of his fame in silent films but at the brink of the talkies meets a young actress/dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a nobody who — even as they fall in love, though in keeping with the theme it’s never said aloud — parlays their fortuitous meeting into stardom — in the new talkies. Valentin, rich, confident, used to the power of his stardom, refuses to make the bridge to the talkies.
Thus Peppy’s arc rises and his falls. She soars to the top while he, uncompromising in his artistic pride, refuses to talk for the movies. With the kind of marvelous play on words this “silent” movie abounds in, when his wife, on the brink of leaving him, comes up with the familiar “We have to talk,” he refuses, blows her off. So she blows him off … and keeps the mansion, the jewelry, the objets d’art …
He descends, he pawns his tuxedo, he drinks, he let’s his loyal, unpaid butler go, giving him the car which is all he has left, and he hits bottom. Well, he has one other thing left, his totally marvelous dog (if there were no other reason to see the movie, the dog would be enough).
The titles of the movies these two stars make echo where they are in their personal story. Leaving the studio, he loses huge sums of money in his self-funded silent film fiasco in which we see him drowning in quicksand at “The End.” The rest of his money goes in the 1929 crash. While Peppy, in her new stardom, makes Guardian Angel, and she is his guardian angel, or tries to be, but he resists all help because of pride. Valentin has another guardian angel, though, the dog — like him a genius at wordless communication.
How to find a way around Valentin’s pride — without making him talk in the movies? There is a way, and … you will leave this movie smiling broadly, deeply, warmly.
Dujardin is marvelous as the silent film star with his dark good looks and that smoothed back hair. The scene in which he — for several film retakes — winds his face up into the inhibited smile/sneer of a German officer is funny and fascinating for the sheer artistry . In the quietest moments of introspection his face reflects the parade of thoughts, memories and emotions that cross the mind in his fall from greatness. And he’s an outstanding, charismatic dancer.
Bejo, with her large dark eyes and mobile face, is entrancing as the dynamic talent, out for herself but — here’s the strength of her character — not only for herself. In a world of glitter and make believe, she truly loves him and she proves it; the more obvious ways she tries are touching for the film goer but leave him unmoved, so she strains to find a way, in harmony with his artistic pride, not to restore him — her first thought — but to enable him to restore himself.
Everything about this movie is in fact intelligent, witty and great — including the musical score, which, along with the screen play and the film as a whole is Academy Award worthy. It couldn’t be more vibrant, compelling, funny, touching or memorable.