Silent cinema, the axiom goes, was never silent, it just lacked a sound track. Set in the years 1927 to 1932, The Artist honours the romantic adventure films of the Rudolph Valentino kind, and then, with the advent of the talkie, the musical. In this sense, the film pays a homage not to the transition point between silent cinema and sound, but to the lighter side of Hollywood.
In truth, this period was the Golden age of cinema in Germany, not Hollywood—it was German Expressionism, films like Metropolis (1927), that was to influence the history of film, including later American movements like film noir. The Artist is a clever little film, but it is not truly evocative of the era, and, taken out of its historical context, does not stand up as a work of high-class drama either.
But in the category of cuteness, it is a winner. The film is about an enormously popular romantic hero called George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who is on the wrong side of sound and pooh-poohs the talkie until he is destroyed by it. His protégé, on the other hand, a vivacious girl called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), talks, sings and dances her way up the Hollywood pecking order until she is a huge star.
But Peppy is a good soul and stardom does not affect her admiration and love of Valentin. She keeps an eye out for him, even while he is on a steep decline into poverty, depression and alcoholism. Though eventually destitute, he has pride and Peppy respects that. In other words, The Artist plays to the Hollywood formula it bows to, while doing a well-crafted retrospective of popular cinema of that era.
Furthermore, there is a brilliant Jack Russell Terrier here. Rin-Tin-Tin of the silent cinema era was a star, but nobody in the movies “plays dead” better than Jack (Uggie). The dog is a genius.