It’s the water cooler film everyone with half an eye on the American awards season but has been yakking about, but you won’t find any of that jazz – the whole speaking thing – in French director Michel Hazanavicius’s sumptuous silent salute to pre-talkies Hollywood.

Like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Artist takes place on and around studio lots and follows actors making the transition to audio-enabled cinema, with radiant-faced star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) at risk of tumbling into the lonely territory of Norma “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small” Desmond well before his screen-filling charm has weltered.

With a hat tip – or a toe tap – to Fred Astaire’s Swing Time (1936) and classical Hollywood sets that overlapped pre and post talkies revolution, Hazanavicius also pulls off something a great deal more interesting than a sweetened homage. A dream scene in which Valentin cannot hear himself speak (throughout the film, of course, neither can we) but hears a dog barking and women giggling is but one example of The Artist’s stunning soundscape.

The story fluctuates between light and dark elements as smoothly as its gorgeously contrasted black and white photography, dowsing audiences in a nostalgic glow of sunshine and shadows. And like Rolf de Heer’s Dr Plonk (2007), another salute to silent era filmmaking, The Artist is boosted by a scene stealing Jack Russell.

The Artist’s Australian theatrical release date: February 2, 2012.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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