In 1927, silent film star George Valentin is posing for pictures outside the premiere of his latest hit film when a young woman, Peppy Miller, accidentally bumps into him. Valentin reacts with humor to the accident and shows off with Peppy for the cameras. The next day, Peppy finds herself on the front page of Variety with the headline "Who's That Girl?" Later, Peppy auditions as a dancer and is spotted by Valentin, who insists that she have a part in Kinograph Studios' next production, despite objections from the studio boss, Al Zimmer. While performing a scene in which they dance together, Valentin and Peppy show great chemistry, despite her being merely an extra. With a little guidance from Valentin (he draws a beauty spot on her, which will eventually be her trademark, after finding her in his dressing room), Peppy slowly rises through the industry, earning more prominent starring roles.
Two years later, Zimmer announces the end of production of silent films at Kinograph Studios, but Valentin is dismissive, insisting that sound is just a fad. In a dream, Valentin begins hearing sounds from his environment (as does the audience), but cannot speak himself, then wakes up in a sweat. He decides to produce and direct his own silent film, financing it himself. The film opens on the same day as Peppy's new sound film as well as the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Now Valentin's only chance of avoiding bankruptcy is for his film to be a hit. Unfortunately audiences flock to Peppy's film instead and Valentin is ruined. His wife, Doris, kicks him out, and he moves into an apartment with his valet/chauffeur, Clifton, and his dog. Peppy goes on to become a major Hollywood star.
Later, the bankrupt Valentin is forced to auction off all of his personal effects, and after realizing he has not paid loyal Clifton in over a year, gives him the car and fires him, telling him to get another job. Depressed and drunk, Valentin angrily sets a match to his private collection of his earlier films. As the nitrate film quickly blazes out of control he is overwhelmed by the smoke and passes out inside the burning house, still clutching a single film canister. However, Valentin's dog attracts the help of a nearby policeman, and after being rescued Valentin is hospitalized for injuries suffered in the fire. Peppy visits the hospital and discovers that the film he rescued is the one with them dancing together. She asks for him to be moved to her house to recuperate. Valentin awakens in a bed at her house, to find that Clifton is now working for Peppy. Valentin seems to remain dismissive of Peppy having taken him in, prompting Clifton to sternly remind Valentin of his changing luck.
Peppy insists to Zimmer that Valentin co-star in her next film, threatening to quit Kinograph if Zimmer does not agree to her terms. After Valentin learns to his dismay that it had been Peppy who had purchased all his auctioned effects, he returns in despair to his burnt-out apartment. Peppy arrives, panicked, and finds that Valentin is about to attempt suicide with a handgun. Peppy tells him she only wanted to help him. They embrace and Valentin tells her it's no use; no one wants to hear him speak. Remembering Valentin's superb dancing ability, Peppy persuades Zimmer to let them make a musical together.
Now the audience hears sound for the second Time, as the film starts rolling for a dance scene with Peppy and Valentin and their tap-dancing can be heard. Once the choreography is complete, the two dancers are heard panting. The director of the musical calls out audibly, "Cut!" to which Zimmer adds: "Perfect. Beautiful. Could you give me one more?" Valentin, in his only audible line, replies "With pleasure!" revealing his French accent. The camera then pulls back to the sounds of the film crew as they prepare to shoot another take.
Director Michel Hazanavicius had been fantasizing about making a silent film for many years, both because many filmmakers he admires emerged in the silent era, and because of the image-driven nature of the form. According to Hazanavicius his wish to make a silent film was at first not taken seriously, but after the financial success of his spy-film pastiches OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, producers started to express interest. The forming of the film's narrative started with Hazanavicius' desire to work again with actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius's wife, who had both starred in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Hazanavicius chose the form of the melodrama, mostly because he thought many of the films from the silent era which have aged best are melodramas. He did extensive research about 1920s Hollywood, and studied silent films to find the right techniques to make the story comprehensible without having to use too many intertitles. The screenplay took four months to write.
Chief among the influences shaping the screenplay’s protagonist was Douglas Fairbanks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent book Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance, as well as the Academy’s Douglas Fairbanks exhibition and screening events both in Los Angeles and New York City, afforded Hollywood’s first swashbuckling hero and the Academy's first president some significant media attention.
Principal photography on The Artist began in November 2010, taking place over the course of thirty-five days, made in the 1.33:1 screen ratio commonly used in the silent film era. Though presented in black-and-white, it was shot in color by cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman. All the technical details, including lenses, lighting and camera moves, were calibrated to aesthetically match silent films of the period. To recreate the slightly sped-up look of 1920s silent films, the film was shot at a slightly lower frame rate of 22 fps as opposed to the standard 24 fps. Most of the film is silent, except for two brief scenes with sound as well as the non-diegetic Soundtrack. Throughout the shoot, Hazanavicius played music from classic Hollywood films while the actors performed.
The film was produced by La Petite Reine and ARP Sélection for 13.47 million euro, including co-production support from Studio 37 and France 3 Cinéma, and pre-sales investment from Canal+ and CinéCinéma. The cast and the crew included both French and American members. All the scenes were shot in Los Angeles, primarily in Hollywood, but also in downtown theaters, restaurants and houses, including the one in which Mary Pickford lived. Soundstage work was done at Red Studios, and the studio lot itself doubled for part of the fictional Kinograph Studios lot, with Red's Lillian Way entrance doubling as the Kinograph entrance in several sequences. The iconic Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. provided the location for the film's distinctive staircase sequence. The dance sequence that closes the film took seventeen takes, and required Dujardin and Bejo to spend five months studying tap dancing, with Dujardin claiming that "in the first week it's fun, the fifth week it's a little boring, at the end it's thrilling".
American costume designer Mark Bridges created the wardrobe for the film's cast.
The film's music was largely composed by Ludovic Bource, but includes works by other composers such as Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia". The soundtrack was recorded in Belgium by the Brussels Philharmonic and was conducted by Ernst Van Tiel; the Brussels Jazz Orchestra also cooperated. The recording took place during six days in April 2011 at Flagey's Studio 4 in Brussels.
The film's climactic scene is set to Bernard Herrmann's "Scène d'amour" from his score to Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo. In Vertigo, that composition similarly accompanies an extended scene without dialogue. Only one song (sung, with lyrics) is used in the soundtrack, "Pennies from Heaven", sung by Rose "Chi-Chi" Murphy (uncredited). This song was written in 1936 although the film is set between 1927 and 1932.
The soundtrack was released on 21 October 2011 through Sony Classical Records.
The film premiered on 15 May 2011 in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. It was initially announced as an out of competition entry, but was moved to the competition a week before the festival opened. The French regular release was on 12 October 2011 through Warner Bros. France. The Weinstein Company bought the distribution rights for the United States and Australia and Entertainment Film Distributors bought the UK distribution. The film was initially given a limited release in the United States on 23 November 2011.
Following its wins at the 69th Golden Globe Awards, it was announced Warner Bros. would re-release the film in France in 362 theaters on 25 January 2012. It was also re-released in Belgium on 22 February 2012.
The Artist grossed $44,671,682 in North America, along with $88,761,174 in other territories for a worldwide total of $133,432,856. After its success at the Academy Awards, the film saw a moderate boost the following week on the box office in North America. It appeared on the week's top 10 chart and got an increase of 34% while expanding its release from 966 theaters to 1,756.
On review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 96% based on 280 reviews, with an average rating of 8.8/10. The site's critical consensus states, "A crowd-pleasing tribute to the magic of silent cinema, The Artist is a clever, joyous film with delightful performances and visual style to spare." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating to reviews, the film received an average score of 89 out of 100, based on 41 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Mark Adams of Screen Daily called the film "a real pleasure"; "propelled elegantly forward by delightful performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo it is the most unlikely of feel-good movies." He added however: "The film does feel a little sluggish towards the end of the first third as the music is a little repetitive and the intertitles are infrequent, but Hazanavicius manages to give the film a real sense of charm and warmth, and film fans will be competing to spot visual and musical references." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described how the film "had me on my feet cheering throughout the final credits" and stated "I can't wait to see it again".
Geoffrey McNab at The Independent called the film "both a surefire crowdpleaser and a magnificent piece of film-making" in his 5 star review from the Cannes Film Festival. Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail assessed The Artist highly, noting the film "uses old technology to dazzling effect to illustrate the insistent conquest of a new technology." Sukanya Verma for Rediff.com feels The Artist is an extremely well-researched film and is an instant classic. David Thomson of The New Republic called The Artist an "accomplished and witty entertainment" and went on to write, "Whether Hazanavicius can do more things as elegant and touching, without the gimmick of silence, remains to be seen (and heard). Meanwhile, he is to be congratulated on the grounds of pleasure alone. He may be due for much more in the way of rewards." Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four, praising the performances, and calling the film "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."
Writing for Slant Magazine, Jaime N. Christley gave the film 1.5 out of 4 stars, explaining Michel Hazanavicius ignores "everything that's fascinating and memorable about the era, focusing instead on a patchwork of general knowledge, so eroded of inconvenient facts that it doesn't even qualify as a roman à clef." America argued that while Jean Dujardin carried the film, Bejo's performance was disappointing.
On 9 January 2012, actress Kim Novak stated that "rape" had been committed in the film's licensed use of a portion of Bernard Herrmann's score from Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo (in which Novak starred). The final portion of The Artist is accompanied not by original music, but by a 1992 recording of the Herrmann composition Scene d'Amour, conducted by Elmer Bernstein. In the article published, by Variety, she stated that "I feel as if my body — or at least my body of work — has been violated by the movie." "This film should've been able to stand on its own without depending on Bernard Herrmann's score from Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' to provide more drama" and that "It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended", ending her comments with "Shame on them!"
In response, director Hazanavicius released a statement:
The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I’m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I’m sorry to hear she disagrees.
Hazanavicius also told CNN "I used music from another movie, but it’s not illegal. We paid for that, we asked for that and we had the permission to do it. For me there is no real controversy.... I feel sorry for her, but there’s a lot of movies with music from other movies, directors do that all the time and I’m not sure it’s a big deal."
In May 2011, when the film was first shown at the Cannes Festival, Todd McCarthy from The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the use of Herrmann's music, "Hazanavicius and Bource daringly choose to explicitly employ Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo, which is dramatically effective in its own right but is so well known that it yanks you out of one film and places you in the mind-set of another. Surely some sort of reworked equivalent would have been a better idea."
The film has appeared on the following critics' top ten lists for the best films of 2011:
At the 65th British Academy Film Awards, the film won seven awards, including Best Film, Best Actor for Dujardin, Best Original Screenplay for Hazanavicius, Cinematography for Schiffman, Costume Design for Bridges and Original Score for Ludovic Bource. At the 69th Golden Globe Awards, the film was nominated for six Golden Globes to win three of them; Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Dujardin and Best Musical Score for Bource.
At the 84th Academy Awards, The Artist received ten nominations, winning five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Hazanavicius, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Jean Dujardin, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score.
The Artist was released on region 1 DVD and Blu-ray on 26 June 2012. It was released in the UK on 28 May 2012.