The first few seconds of The Artist contain pretty much everything you're afraid of in a black-and-white silent movie: melodrama, overacting, nothing seeming remotely real.
The first thing you see is a huge mouth, moving silently, and the titles "I won't talk. I won't say a word." Kind of on-the-nose, right?
But then the camera pulls back, and you realize you're watching a guy being interrogated in a spy flick -- a movie within the movie -- at a star-studded 1927 premiere. The camera cuts from the crowded theater to behind the screen, where the actors stand in evening clothes waiting to go out and take a bow. There's star George Valentin, who was being interrogated on screen, his Jack Russell terrier, and an actress he doesn't seem to think much of.
As their interaction is intercut with the spy movie, the differences register, and your initial fears slip away. I mean, the folks off screen are all silent and black-and-white, too. But the film is already wrapping you up in a world where silence makes sense.
That world is about to be disrupted for George, both at the movies and in his personal life. He'll be knocked off stride first by "talking pictures," which he's convinced are just a fad, and then by a pretty girl named Peppy. She's an extra who is cast opposite him for a scene where you watch her youthful glow and hesitant smile catch both him and the camera.
With talkies (and therefore, musicals) coming in, Peppy's skill as a dancer is about to be much in demand. George's skill at pantomime, on the other hand, won't be. So he's on his way down, Peppy's on her way up, and in case you miss that, director Michel Hazanavicius has them meet halfway on a staircase, him dejected, her just radiant.
Now, if you know something about silent movies, you'll be making all sorts of connections by this time. George, as played by French actor Jean Dujardin, is a cross between swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and romantic lead John Gilbert, who was known as "The Great Lover" until sound came in and audiences heard him saying "I love you, I love you" over and over.
Berenice Bejo's Peppy, meanwhile, is channeling a lot of that era's pretty young things, including Greta Garbo, who fell for Gilbert while making one of her first American movies. Even George's faithful mutt seems familiar -- a grand-uncle, maybe, of Asta from those '30s Thin Man movies.
All of that's fun for those in the know. But what will lift this movie way above most of what's at the multiplex right now, even for folks who aren't silent-movie buffs, is the way the director makes you a willing, even an excited fan of this crazy, old-fashioned thing he's doing.
By the time the opening sequence is over, you'll have realized that in his hands, silence is almost liberating. It heightens all things visual, makes the jokes -- and The Artist is a very funny picture -- sort of pop and fizz even as it's putting extra smolder into lovesick glances.
Keep an eye out for movie marquees and posters on screen -- nearly every one of them will prompt a smile -- and be ready when the director decides to try an ingenious exception to his rule that silence is golden.
The delighted gasps in the theater will make you glad you took a chance on The Artist. Silent black-and-white movies are not coming back, but this one is such a rewarding labor of love by all of the artists involved that it just might make you wish they could. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.