Shot mostly silent, in black and white, and with the squarish, Academy-ratio framing that predated widescreen cinematography, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a Frenchman’s tribute to old-school Hollywood filmmaking. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, one of those silent-film actors who scoffed at the popularity of talking pictures until their careers hit the skids. Bérénice Bejo, who co-starred with Dujardin in Hazavanicius’s secret-agent comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, is fangirl-turned-starlet Peppy Miller, who looks to George as a mentor. But George, a generation her senior, refuses to embrace the talkies and his career fades to black as Peppy becomes a marquee name in her own right. As you might imagine, this situation leads to professional jealousy, personal resentment and, eventually, redemption through the love of a good woman.
The Phantom Carriage, a seminal achievement in silent filmmaking from that other great Swedish auteur, Victor Sjöström, is a stern, supernatural moral drama that rails against social problems of the day by enlisting an emissary from the Great Beyond to lecture the feckless, abusive protagonist on what a rotten shit he is. Sjöström remains best known internationally for his later Hollywood films, made with the likes of Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, but The Phantom Carriage already testified to genius behind the camera as well as in front of it. When the movie finished playing, I picked up the disc’s keepcase and squinted at it, in all my ignorance, to determine who so expertly essayed the central character of the alcoholic David Holm. When I read the answer (Sjöström himself), I wanted to fling the box across the room. Show-off.