The most stunning visual effect at the movies this season may also be the most archaic: black-and-white cinematography on the big screen — and in a silent movie, no less. Immediately, that demands some qualification: Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is no more or less a silent movie than Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy. It has a continuous score, a scene using dramatically overamped sound effects (how very Jerry), and ... well, the rest you've gotta see for yourself. But this waist-deep bow to Golden Age Hollywood mimics the form of silent cinema from its square 1.37:1 aspect ratio to its 22-frames-per-second shooting speed, and even when its slight story threatens to overstay its welcome, its luminous high-contrast images retain the shock of novelty — and beauty — throughout.
Writer-director Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin made hay overseas with the OSS 117 films, whose poker-faced mock-ups of '60s European spy thrillers sailed over the heads of U.S. audiences. No danger of that here: The Artist eliminates the language barrier, and the farthest point of reference is De Sica's Umberto D. (At least I think that's the kennel where the filmmakers found the hero's scene-stealing tragicomic pooch.) In Hazanavicius' dialogue-free reworking of A Star is Born, Dujardin plays George Valentin, a suave matinee idol who laughs off threats of those newfangled "talkies." Instead, he sinks his fortune into a wordless vanity epic, only to be eclipsed by the chorus-girl protégé (Berenice Bejo) who becomes the darling of the dawn of sound.
Up to this point, The Artist is all breezy homage: except for an ingenious nightmare sequence that intimates Valentin's terror of the sound revolution, it's about as weighty as Singin' in the Rain. Then comes the hero's obligatory plummet to the bottom, though, and the movie wallows in his misery for an uncomfortably long stretch. Ironically enough, nothing to that point in Dujardin's deft million-dollar-smile performance suggests he might be capable of an artist's depth of despondency; his despair (carried to the brink of suicide!) seems morbid, not tragic. It's in these scenes that you crave something more than pastiche — the emotional intensity of a real silent movie, not a re-enactment.
But the movie recovers with a splendid flip back to its effervescent tone, and a finale that revives one of the joys of early cinema: two swells in evening wear on a black-and-white soundstage, giving their all in a stops-out production number just to make you smile, darn ya. If Hazanavicius can't construct a gag with the same expert scaffolding as the great silent comics, he at least knows the value of faces — not just the gleaming glamour-pusses of leads Dujardin and Bejo, but the distinctive mugs (and physiques) of supporting players from studio boss John Goodman to loyal butler James Cromwell. The Artist may ultimately be another of 2011's exercises in film preservation disguised as pop entertainment — see also Hugo and Super 8 — but there are worse things for a movie to be than a Trojan horse for Turner Classic Movies.