Black-and-white and almost wordless, The Artist is a mash note to the era of silent cinema. A sweet, uncomplicated film, it might be a bit precious if it weren't for the smile of its leading man, French comic actor Jean Dujardin.
That smile says a lot for a man who says nothing. Irresistible, infectious, amazingly adaptable, it has probably gone a long way in snagging Dujardin's Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
If fellow nominee George Clooney is Hollywood's class president and Brad Pitt is the handsome football captain who's unexpectedly won the "most improved academics" award, Dujardin could be the hot new exchange student. We're crushing on him, even though we've barely heard him speak two words.
Playing 1920s screen star Charles Valentin, Dujardin is a vain, oblivious, grandstanding ninny. He also happens to be utterly charming. Not an easy stretch, but that smile bridges the gap.
The smile also sets the film's tone. To be overly sincere would deflate the film's lovely fluff, but falling into irony would be a huge mistake. Charles' smile -- gallant, game, wry, occasionally rueful -- navigates nimbly between these poles.
Sometimes it's a smile of pure animal joy at some silent-film bit of derring-do. Sometimes it's sheepish, sometimes it's a wink, sometimes it's a come-hither question. Even when the film falls into its gloomy third act, with A Star is Born drunkenness and Sunset Boulevard repining, that smile keeps popping up in spite of itself, surprised by life's rich pageant.
Now, it should be pointed out that Dujardin's other bits -- the non-smiling parts -- are pretty swell. He looks sharp in a dinner jacket. He has a face that is both classically chiselled and goofy. (And isn't that what women want? He's handsome, and he'll make you laugh.)
But Dujardin's star power is concentrated in his smile. It's big, literally big: Dujardin seems to have more teeth -- or possibly bigger teeth -- than the average man. And it's metaphorically big, radiating out like sunshine.
What makes it a real movie star smile, though, is the fact that it's both big and intimate. I kept thinking he was smiling right at me, just me, and I suspect everyone else in the audience was having exactly the same thought.
His smile is also contagious. And I'm talking science here. Studies suggest there is an innate human tendency to mirror other people's facial expressions, so that when Charles was smiling, I was smiling. Studies also suggest that the act of smiling lifts your mood, releases endorphins and boosts immune function, which is maybe why The Artist is such a happy movie.
Cheerful and chipper, The Artist is an unabashed homage to a lost time -- to dance numbers, to dogs as supporting characters, to the kind of innocent, old-fashioned romance that wouldn't survive the advent of '30s screwball dialogue. And of course, it's an ode to old-timey star quality.
Like an old-school leading man, Dujardin carries the film, not just with his performance but with his face. And not just with his face but with his smile.