First Hugo, and now The Artist—films about films, for people who love films, huzzah! Not that either of these movies is…inaccessible to a “regular” audience, but a little bit of knowledge allows one to appreciate the in-jokes, homages, references, what-have-you (of course, the factual inaccuracies also stand out more sharply as well, but that’s a burden we’ll have to bear).
Perhaps the best word to describe The Artist is “charming”—it’s not especially complex dramatically nor hilariously funny, although it’s both touching and amusing at times—but the film is a true pleasure to watch, the characters are worthy of empathy, the formal aspects (no dialogue or sound effects, black & white cinematography) are intriguing, and “getting” the sub-texts enhances the viewing experience for us film nerds. Director Michael Hazanavicius often treads a fine line between subtlety and blatant symbolism (or to be more precise, he alternates between these two extremes) but this is really a well-crafted work with no serious weak spots in concept or execution.
The Artist depicts a few years in the life of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanksian star whose films focus on his boundless energy and brilliant smile. Valentin lives the good life (although his marriage doesn’t appear to be happy) in a grand Hollywood mansion, and the future looks bright. A chance encounter with would-be actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, the director’s real-life wife) produces a few emotional sparks, but they go their separate ways (George does give her an inspiring and apparently sincere pep-talk): he continues to perform on the Olympian level, while she begins her own climb to the heights.
However, George doesn’t view the advent of sound with favour, and parts ways with the Kinograph Motion Picture Company. His attempt at independent production with a silent feature entitled “Tears of Love” fails, and the stock market crash does the rest: his wife leaves him, he has to sell off his mansion and its contents, and is reduced to near-poverty. Peppy, in the meantime, has become a major star in sound pictures. However, she’s never forgotten George…
The Artist isn’t a documentary, so it should be permitted a certain freedom in its depiction of silent Hollywood and its transition to sound. Still, dramatic license occasionally pokes one in the eye: sound didn’t suddenly explode on the motion picture industry in 1929 as the film suggests, but gradually moved from the experimental stage to become a novelty (in the early 1920s) and then appeared in feature films as early as 1926 (Don Juan had a synchronised music score), and The Jazz Singer was a massive hit in 1927 (when The Artist begins). There was some trepidation about the capital investment required to convert to the new and unproven technology, and some people felt sound and film artistry were inherently inimicable, but the writing was on the wall fairly early on.
Similarly, the scene in which mega-star George Valentin is brushed aside in favour of “fresh meat” for film audiences is hardly credible. Established stars were generally given the opportunity to make the transition to sound, unless there were specific reasons why they were clearly unsuitable for the new medium. Naturally, some performers became casualties of sound, but very few were denied even the chance to try. The Artist initially depicts George scoffing at a “sound test,” but we don’t see him refuse to make a sound film in 1929: instead he is blatantly informed by studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) that his services are no longer needed.
Why doesn’t George give sound films a try? His public statements about sound ruining films as an art form appear to be attempts to sell his silent movie to the public rather than a seriously-held aesthetic judgement. He has a nightmare in which all manner of noise figures prominently, yet he himself cannot make a sound. Only in the final moments of The Artist do we get a hint of what may have been on George’s mind all along: his only dialogue in the movie is in response to Zimmer’s enthusiastic request for a repeat of the climactic dance routine, to which George replies “Wizz plesair!” Yes, “All-American” screen hero George Valentin has a French accent thicker than Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer’s combined (of course, those two Gallic performers did quite well in Hollywood, but their screen personas were tailored to fit). Whether this is the “secret” of The Artist is debatable: perhaps Hazanavicius had no such idea, and he really did intend for us to believe George had ideological objections to sound films (or that he was just insecure and didn’t want to risk his career to new technology).
The Artist, to its credit, doesn’t cheat formally: it truly is a silent film (with an accompanying music score) until the very end (aside from the aforementioned dream sequence and a musical montage set to the song “Pennies from Heaven”). There are a few inter-titles, but the audience is expected to mentally fill in much of the dialogue themselves, or infer from the action what is happening. Other silent-film conventions are used effectively, such as images which convey sound (for example, a shot of Peppy whistling to get George’s attention), “wipes” to transition from scene to scene, and so forth.
Hazanavicius, as noted above, alternates between subtle and blatant visuals. For example, in the opening sequence, we glimpse a sign in a cinema reading “Please Be Silent Behind the Screen,” a nice touch, as are the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkey figurines George owns, signifying the actor’s refusal to listen to the advice of his wife, Al Zimmer, etc., and his refusal to speak. On the heavy-handed side are a film marquee reading “Lonely Star” as a sad George walks away, and Peppy appearing in a movie rather over-significantly entitled “Guardian Angel.” There are also a number of film references, overt and covert (a few possibly just imagined by me). For instance: Citizen Kane is evoked in a “breakfast scene” montage between George and his wife (Peppy’s room full of George’s sheet-covered possessions is also reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse “collection”); A Star is Born (and the early prototype for this story, What Price Hollywood?) seems to have been an inspiration; George himself is a pseudo-Douglas Fairbanks (footage from a Fairbanks film is even included); George’s unsuccessful jungle adventure-romance “Tears of Love” might be a reference to the aborted Erich Von Stroheim-Gloria Swanson collaboration Queen Kelly (the two films share a jungle setting and both were notorious “late silent” failures).
In one sequence, Peppy, promoting her first sound film, makes a disparaging remark about the melodramatic acting style in silents. As with George’s negative comments about sound, Peppy’s denigration of silent film acting feels more like publicity for her new talkie, as opposed to a sincere condemnation of George and his ilk (and after all, her career began in the silent era as well). Actors in silent films were perhaps not as naturalistic and understated in their craft as actors today, but this is not necessarily solely attributable to the silent/sound difference, but also owes a great deal to the evolution of acting styles over the years. The performances in The Artist are not artificial or “old-fashioned” or flamboyant in the manner frequently (but mistakenly) associated with silent films.
Dujardin carries the dramatic load effectively, showing both sides of George Valentin, the public figure and the private man. Though Dujardin is bereft of one of the actor’s main tools—his voice—in this case it’s not only appropriate within the context of the film but it also allows Dujardin to pull a George Valentin: that is, he’s not typecast due to his accent, so we can more easily accept him as a presumably (until the end of the movie) American movie star. Similarly, Bérénice Bejo can be flapper Peppy Miller, and not Renee Adoree or Jetta Goudal or even Greta Garbo, i.e., defined by her “foreign” voice. This is a instance where reality and film coincide in a curious manner. That is, the absence of dialogue allows Dujardin and Bejo to be much more believable in their roles.
So, voiceless, how do they do? Pretty darn well, using their faces and bodies to convey meaning and emotion with real depth and nuance. The other performers are adequate but have relatively small roles, and make no real impression (John Goodman is an interesting case, because our prior familiarity with his persona and voice allow us to supply those missing aspects and thus make his role seem to have more depth than it actually does; the same applies to a certain extent to James Cromwell). On the positive side, Hazanavicius (and his casting director) have done an excellent job in finding people with “1920s faces.” Too often, period films populate their casts with actors and extras who seem too modern, but The Artist doesn’t have this anachronistic feel at all.
The production values are excellent, with splendid sets and costumes. The cinematography is also top-notch (and while audiences probably won’t notice, the film is shot in the “old” aspect ratio of roughly 4:3, rather than 1:85 to 1 or wider), and the music score is superb (I didn’t like the version of “Pennies from Heaven” that plays here, but that’s a minor quibble).
As with Hugo, I recognise that my affection for film history may colour my attitude toward The Artist. However, I believe I can say with a certain degree of objectivity that this really is a fine film, intelligently designed and directed. The form and content are inextricably intertwined, and conventional wisdom is that “regular audiences” wouldn’t enjoy a “silent,” black and white movie. I don’t think this is necessarily a film only for film buffs, intellectuals, or arty hipsters—but it might be difficult to convince people otherwise.
But if so, then it’s their loss— I liked The Artist and enjoyed it immensely.