But the passing of the silent era from memory into myth is what The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s dazzling film is all about.
Though its protagonist mourns the arrival of sound, the film itself is more interested in celebrating the power of a medium that can sparkle, that it doesn’t really need to have anything to say.
In those days the sign up in the hills said HOLLYWOODLAND, and the screens were dominated by antic clowns, pale heroines and dashing lovers.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) undoubtedly belongs in that last category: with his shiny hair, radiant teeth and thin moustache – and a surname one vowel short of Valentino – George is a quintessential movie star.
The public adores him, and he is far too gracious an entertainer to contradict them.
A carefree narcissist, he bounces from the studio lot to the red carpet to the Beverly Hills mansion he shares with his devoted dog and less enchanted wife and co-star (Penelope Ann Miller), secure in the permanence of his glory.
But even viewers entirely innocent of film history will anticipate what happens next.
George’s pride sets up a fall, first into a sweet, awkward infatuation with an aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), then into professional ruin brought about by his stubborn refusal to change with the times.
Abandoned by his wife and shunned by the studio boss (a wonderfully boisterous John Goodman), with only the dog and his chauffeur (James Cromwell) standing by him, the star goes into eclipse, and even when threatened with the torments of obscurity, he refuses to speak.
Strictly speaking Hazanavicius’s film is not a silent movie. There is a lot of music on the soundtrack and also a few strategic moments of onscreen noise that are both delightfully surprising and wildly illogical.
There are also shameless nods to iconic moments in film history’s footnotes – a scene lifted from Citizen Kane, a score borrowed from Vertigo, etc.
All of this suggests The Artist is simply a feast for film nerds. It certainly is, and Hazanavicius’ skill in replicating some of the visual effects of early cinema is impressive.
But is more than a clever pastiche of antique amusements. It may be something less than a great film, but it is an irresistible reminder of nearly everything that made them great in the first place.