'The Artist' surprises and delights without a word

Is it possible to forget that "The Artist" is a silent film in black and white and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That's what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. At a sneak preview screening in Chicago, a few audience members actually walked out, saying they didn't like silent films. I was reminded of the time a reader called me to ask about an Ingmar Bergman film. "I think it's the best film of the year," I said. "Oh," she said, "that doesn't sound like anything WE'D like to see."

Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances, and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black-and-white. "The Artist" knows you're aware it's silent, and kids you about it. Not that it's entirely silent, of course; like all silent films were, it's accompanied by music. You know – like in a regular movie when nobody's talking?

One of its inspirations was probably "Singin' in the Rain," a classic about a silent actress whose squeaky voice didn't work in talkies, and about the perky little unknown actress who made it big because hers did. The heroine (Debbie Reynolds) fell in love with an egomaniacal silent star – but a nice one, you know? Played by Gene Kelly in 1952 and by Jean Dujardin now, he has one of those dazzling smiles you suspect dazzles no one more than himself. Dujardin, who won best actor for this role at Cannes 2011, looks like a cross between Kelly and Sean Connery, and has such a command of comic timing and body language that he might have been – well, a silent star. Full review.