It's 1927 and everyone who's anyone is at the premiere of George Valentin's new movie, A Russian Affair. George is there, of course, and he's soaking up some serious love from the ecstatic crowd.
His producer from Kinograph, Al Zimmer, is there, puffing on that cigar. George's favorite person (who's not a person) Jack the dog is there. And aspiring actress Peppy Miller is there, waiting to bump into George and change his life forever.
Okay, maybe it's not Peppy that changes his life, necessarily, but they do have a "moment" on the red carpet when she drops her pocketbook and ends up in front of the cameras with him, much to the chagrin of George's distant wife and Al Zimmer, who wants the media asking "What's that movie?" not, "Who's that girl?"
George and Peppy meet again, this time on set where Peppy has nailed her audition but needs George's smooth-talking aid to help her appease Zimmer. The two beautiful people shoot a movie together called A German Affair and their chemistry keeps getting in the way. They have another "moment" in George's dressing room, where he draws a beauty mark on her cheek and they lock eyes for a good while.
So far, so good. Everything is on track with our love story.
As Peppy's movie roles start rolling in, George's are on the decline. This won't work at all. The power dynamic's all off—George's ego is getting super-bruised.
Zimmer introduces George to the idea of sound movies and he laughs it off, but then has a nightmare where everything around him is in sound but he can't speak a word. (It's the silent movie star version of showing up to school in your undies.)
Peppy Miller becomes a "new face" of Kinograph studios and George decides to go against the grain and produce, write and star in his own silent film, set to premiere the same date as Peppy's new talkie. It turns out to be a pretty bad decision that leads to a series of unfortunate events: George overhears Peppy calling him washed up, his wife leaves him, the stock market crashes, he goes bankrupt, it rains all the time, and he moves out of his mansion into a smaller place.
Peppy visits George to try to right her wrongs, but it's no use. He drowns his troubles in whisky and fires his loyal chauffeur, Clifton. Meanwhile, Peppy secretly buys up all of George's prized possessions in an auction. It's 1932 and George still can't catch a break. He's drinking more and reminiscing bitterly about his past fame. He even hallucinates sometimes. Maybe he's going mad. Actually, that seems right—he sets fire to his apartment and laughs maniacally.
Thank goodness for Jack the dog, who rescues George. Thank goodness for Peppy, who takes George home from the hospital. Thank goodness George was clutching that film reel (of his and Peppy's movie), because now our love story is back on track.
Or is it?
Back on set, Peppy blackmails Zimmer into giving George another shot. George is horrified to discover all of his paintings and sculptures in one of Peppy's many grand rooms. He feels emasculated. As George wanders about town aimlessly, he encounters a policeman whose voice he can't hear.
Peppy arrives home to find George gone and drives wildly through the streets to his apartment. She finds him with a gun in his hand, contemplating suicide. Seeing her, George snaps out of his daze and finally agrees to accept Peppy's help.
In the final scene of the movie, Peppy and George take to the on-set stage to dance a tap duet that thrills both of them and satisfies Zimmer's addiction to sound. The Artist itself ends, not as a silent film, but with the sounds of the bustling production studio and George uttering his first words of the entire film.