We don’t care if Brad is in Black Label, Clooney is clad in Valentino or if Woody shuffles down the red carpet in Reeboks. The actor we’ll be watching most closely at Sunday’s Oscarfest is a fictional one: George Valentin.
Well, more accurately Jean Dujardin, the actor portraying him in “The Artist.” Concocted from a picture-perfect mix of swash (think Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as Robin Hood, Zorro or the Black Pirate), smolder (his near-namesake Valentino in anything), and the endearingly silly (think Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in full “Dueling Cavalier” mode), Dujardin’s performance as the eponymous artist has propelled him from well-known Gallic farceur to sensational international leading man in true Old Hollywood style.
And style, in fact, has more than a little to do with his ascendance. (Take a look at him doing some major smoldering of his own on the cover of this month’s French GQ, suave in «un smoking» by Armani.) While critics point to his fizzy physical comedy, his loving embodiment of stars of a bygone era or that nifty pencil mustache, we think they’re silently barking up the wrong tree.
The buzz in the D.net screening room has more accurately nailed the secret of Dujardin’s (and George’s) screen success: This is a guy who can truly work a set of tails. In fact, we can’t remember any performer since Astaire for whom a full-dress suit has done so much—and vice versa.
White tie is Valentin’s armor, his avatar and a mode of dress that ties up his identity as onscreen star and private man. Recall the monumentally scaled portrait of a formally clad George that looms over his mantle and later makes a surprising and haunting reappearance. Or starlet Peppy’s sweet interlude with his tailcoat, in which she dreamily rehearses what it might be like to be in George’s arms.
For us, the scene (and it’s one of the few that Uggie hadn’t a chance of stealing) that captures Dujardin’s performance at his most assured and moving takes place when an on-the-skids George is mesmerized by a set of tails in a haberdasher’s window. Trying to fit his own reflection on the mannequin’s torso to recapture the briefest glimpse of his sartorial glory, Dujardin lets us see George’s pride, loss, vanity and heartbreak—a medley of emotions that requires, like “The Artist” itself, not a sound to convey its music.