The year is 1927 and movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is attending the premiere of his latest film, hoping for a good reaction. He can't quite face watching it with the audience, so stays backstage with his co-star (Missi Pyle) and his director (John Goodman) and others involved with the production as the screening draws to a close. There is a pause... and the audience bursts into rousing applause, exactly what George wanted to hear, so he doesn't hesitate in rushing out to greet his fans. They include one Peppy Miller (Bérenice Bejo), who he will soon encounter...
And what a fateful meeting it will be, for she will have a considerable influence on George's life in the future. The Artist was writer and director Michel Hazanavicius' tribute to Hollywood, which coming from a Frenchman was not the only thing that rankled with some viewers, particularly when this won a brace of Oscars including Best Picture. There were those dismissed it as a novelty, those who who could not understand why a work so slavishly recreating an artform that so many had consigned to history should be so celebrated, and even those who could not concieve of a silent movie winning Best Score (for Ludovic Bource), as if the style was to allow these efforts to play out in literal silence.
Of course, until about 1927 silent movies weren't called that at all, they were simply called movies, and this jarring effect that the industry suffered when talkies caught on is a large part of the plot here. But it was not only the silents Hazanavicius was paying homage to, as there were references to other movies throughout, such as the breakfast scene in Citizen Kane (not to mention the smoky screening room), or the concerns of Singin' in the Rain about the sound revolution, or even the romance of each version of A Star is Born, which saw one career on the up as their partner's spiralled downwards. Yet in spite of all these allusions, there was much about The Artist which was very much its own.
George and Peppy meet cute outside the cinema in front of the photographers when she accidentally bumps into him when retrieving her dropped purse, and soon her face is all over the newspapers, which leads to her big break at the studio the next day when she gets a minor role as a dancer. Presently George, whose marriage to a frosty wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is going nowhere fast, is quietly smitten with Peppy, but aside from wishing her all the luck in the world he does not act on his attraction, and when she begins to attain name above the title stardom thanks to her ease with sound film, he is too troubled by his own failure to adapt to change to consider anything but his dwindling fortunes with his Charlie Chaplin-esque refusal to talk on screen in his pet project resulting in a flop.
So fittingly for a story about obsolescence, this was created in a format that was itself obsolete, and George finds himself yesterday's man. What made this such a delight was that the technique of the silents, from the acting to the plotting to the visuals, was meticulously refashioned in the service of art which was now in danger of being forgotten (though this film's success sparked an revival of interest in the cinema of the twenties and even before). There was such affection shown towards the entertainers of yesteryear, with Dujardin the perfect embodiment of the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or John Gilbert while offering an apt lightness of touch to the comedy, that while we we were well aware they would be lost in the mists of time eventually, The Artist operated as a heartfelt thankyou to them for lifting the spirits even when times were tough. For what was really a tale about getting old and the dread of irrelevancy, this was understandably bittersweet, but so lovely in its execution that only the hardest of hearts would fail to be won over, if only because of the dog.