The Artist (PG)

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo

I came out of this film feeling something I rarely do at the cinema. It was more than lightness of heart, and more than a sense of bedazzlement at what I'd just seen. I think it would be permissible to call it happiness. Simply put, The Artist is the funniest, subtlest and most enjoyable experience of the movie year. It's also a thoroughly achieved work of art which, against expectation, succeeds by an inspired omission. The French director Michel Hazanavicius has made a film about the silent age of Hollywood which is itself a silent film, shot in a silvery black and white that could charm the tinsel off your Christmas tree. Or rather, it's nearly silent, saving its best joke till the very last and relying instead on a triumphant match of visuals to a swooning orchestral score. By the end you'll wish you had a pair of spats and a topper.

Sophisticated in its pastiche of old movie tropes (intertitles, iris shots, fades) The Artist is more beguiling than mere homage. It's full of nods and winks to the silents, but they are not an end in themselves. Story is made to count. The romance of the film is alternately tender and piercing, an almost Austenesque examination of pride and stubbornness that threaten to bring its hero to ruin. Its rise-and-fall plotting is in the mould of A Star is Born, the classic showbiz tale of an established great helping an ingenue up the career ladder, only to find her surpassing him as his own star tumbles. The terror of being outmoded runs deep in a film that ironically positions itself as a bygone.

Beginning in 1927 – as does Singin' in the Rain, this film's Technicolor twin – it concerns a dashing Hollywood actor named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an idol of the silent screen whose pencil moustache and brilliant smile have a touch of Gene Kelly, a smidgen of Douglas Fairbanks, maybe a pinch of his near-namesake, Valentino. George is vain, saluting his own portrait on the wall with a cheery little wave, but Dujardin makes of his vanity something artless and winning, just as he does his constant companionship (in life and on screen) with a Jack Russell terrier, played by the incomparable Uggie. An encounter with an aspiring starlet named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) leads George to recommend her to his bullish producer (John Goodman), and soon she's on her way. Her break coincides with the invention of the talkies, a development which George fatefully disdains as a fad. How can they prefer sound over silents? To his bitter cost, he finds out.

The Artist expertly sways between the ominous drumbeats of the new film medium and the burgeoning relationship between Peppy and George. Because the latter is married, albeit unhappily (Penelope Ann Miller plays his exasperated wife), the pair must be content with fondness rather than fire, and one scene beautifully expresses their thwarted feelings for one another. It's actually a sequence of takes for a party scene in which George, still star-bright, cuts in to dance with Peppy. At first they look nervous with their moves; then they start enjoying the dance, laughing so hard they have to try it again; finally, after the fifth or sixth take, they stop and stare at each other. And that's when we realise they've fallen in love. There's another lovely moment later when, chancing to meet on a studio stairway, they exchange wistful glances and Peppy, by way of farewell, does a soft-shoe shuffle – an echo of the first time they were properly introduced.

Hazanavicius directs as if with a magic wand, though I wonder if it would play quite so vividly without Dujardin and Bejo as the leads. Both great smilers, they seem to glow with an extra degree of luminosity even as their fortunes begin to diverge. His is the more complex and intriguing role (it's usually men who make the movies), his shoulders seeming to droop as the clouds over his career darken. The film, playing with the idea of silence, sees George's problem as a refusal to talk, either about his failing marriage or the possibility of switching to the talkies: after the comic narcissism of his early scenes, Dujardin shows himself just as capable of vulnerability and self-doubt. Bejo, with her willowy dancer's body and limpid gaze, is a joy to watch, sweetly tentative at the outset, then majestic as she hits her stride in the 1930s.

What the film marvellously conjures is the sense of movie-going as a communal experience: we, the audience, can imagine ourselves right back in the days when pictures were all that you got, yet seemed to be all that you needed. How, you wonder, could the corny old scene of a dog helping to rescue a man from a burning building possibly work, possibly be moving? All I can tell you is that it does, and it is. Without actually taking George's side, The Artist hymns the simple pleasure of watching, of pictures telling a story. Of course it helps that Ludovic Bource's orchestral score strikes all the right notes, whether to charm, to amuse, or even – in the film's darker passages – to stir us to dread and pity. I loved the moment when, with George at his most despairing, Bource throws in an echo of the tragic love theme from Vertigo.

It doesn't matter if you don't pick up on that little grace note, or any of its salutes to the past. This is a great movie about the movies, and our movie-fed imaginations, but it's not a museum tour of cute references and relics. The film has its own beating heart. It seems to have arrived out of nowhere, though Hazanavicius and Dujardin have worked previously on two Bond spoofs, OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and a sequel. To say that The Artist marks a leap in achievement for both is putting it mildly. Here is a film that enthralls and enchants – that reminds us why we loved going to the pictures in the first place.

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