Although many of the technical aspects of the silent period are expertly re-created — shooting at 22 frames per second, the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio — The Artist's blithe presentation of the transition from sound to talkies is even less complex than the one found in Singin' in the Rain.
The film opens in 1927, when preening matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), saluting his own life-size self-portrait in his mansion every morning, is still the top draw at Kinograph Studios. Ignoring the increasingly icy glares his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) aims at him from across the breakfast table, George acts as a mentor to Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). The Artist tracks both Peppy's ascent (through amusing montage) and George's decline as he refuses to acknowledge synchronized sound as more than a passing fad. By 1932, Peppy's attracting lines around the block for her latest, Beauty Spot, while George spends his afternoons passed out on a barroom floor, his Jack Russell terrier his sole remaining fan.
Or so he thinks: Peppy has never forgotten him, and the film's concluding act restores The Artist's buoyancy. The movie pivots on the spry connection between the mute (save for one scene) Dujardin and Bejo, both nimble performers and elegantly turned out in period finery and pomade. If the charm offensive comes on too strong at times, it's the result of a ham playing a ham. The Artist is movie love at its most anodyne, sweetly asking that we not be afraid of the past.