Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman; Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion & Michel Hazanavicius
Production Design: Laurence Bennett; Set Decoration: Robert Gould; Costumes: Mark Bridges; Score: Ludovic Bource
Stars: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Bérénice Bejo (Peppy Miller), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), James Cromwell (Clifton), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris), Missi Pyle (Constance), Uggie (The Dog), Malcolm McDowell (The Butler)
The Artist is a gentle, sincerely felt homage to silent movies blinded by its love of the art form. If this story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the fading silent star who falls in love with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the new sound actress he helped groom for stardom only to find himself supplanted by her in the hearts of the public, seems unduly familiar it’s because director Michel Hazanavicius and his predominantly French cast and crew are showing their love not just for silent films but for golden age Hollywood in general, by saluting other iconic American classics along similar lines.
Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born are all fluently referenced, as if French film and French stars hadn’t suffered their own growing pains during the awkward switchover to sound in that country. That might have actually made for a far more compelling story, since it’s one that’s never really been told (at least to Americans) – how the coming of sound here indirectly impacted film production in Europe and other parts of the world, forcing them to likewise convert in order to remain competitive. But then, it’s unlikely that a movie on that subject would have had as wide appeal for native audiences, or been marketed and released by an American production company like Weinstein. So the makers of the The Artist wisely played it safe.
While the movie mourns the passing of pantomime, like silent star Valentin, it too comes to terms with and learns to embrace the new talkie technology and the crop of stars that emerged alongside it. In the process, it shows us how skillfully sound could be incorporated into movies, most notably in the nightmare sequence where it seems a rude, surreal intrusion. It’s as if Valentin had passed through the looking-glass into the twilight zone, a bizarre alternate reality where the presence of sound seems a perversion of the natural order. Valentin first becomes aware that all is not as it seems when he sets down his glass and hears it clink, prompting him to experiment with the other items on his dressing table all of which he can now hear, with increasing alarm. Though no sound issues from his own throat, he tries to scream at the top of his lungs to the audible derision of the passing crowds outside. When the barks of his dog Uggie join this new mocking chorus, it’s like the ultimate act of betrayal. To Valentin, the normal world has been turned on its head, and a falling feather reverberates as softly as a booming cannon, bursting his eardrums. It’s a truly terrifying scene that plumbs psychological depths that reach beyond the realm of cinema fantasy. The sequence is meant to suggest the sensation experienced by audiences hearing sounds issuing from the silent screen for the first time. But it’s disturbing because this ‘silent’ character seems much like a deaf-mute who has, through some miraculous agency, suddenly regained his hearing, leaving him confused and disoriented by this dizzying new world full of noises, a heretofore undreamed of fifth dimension.
This dream sequence is the subjective vision of The Artist’s silent star, who fears the microphone and the encroaching changes it heralds. Rather than a gift, to him sound seems like a horrifying prospect, and its sudden and unexpected appearance in this otherwise silent movie forces us to adopt his perspective. It seems a discordant affront to the genteel peace and quiet, like someone laughing in the midst of a funeral procession. It’s a brilliant incorporation of sound for contrast, one that was likely inspired by that scene where Beethoven discovered he had gone deaf and the world suddenly silent in Abel Gance’s 1936 biopic. Gance, who had been one of France’s most important silent filmmakers but faded with the emergence of talkies (Napoleon, his most famous silent, is referenced as well), could undoubtedly identify with Beethoven’s plight and resultant emotions at the realization that the loss of his most important sense would irrevocably impact and alter his ability to produce fine art. Director Hazenivicius’ indirect homage to fellow Frenchman Gance feels just right.
From the outset, the movie toys with its own silence in the way many of the self-aware films of the 20’s, sensitive to the absence of sound in the dream worlds they concocted, actually did. The opening image is of the hero himself enduring electroshock from steel neck bolts attached by interrogators trying to wrest information from him. His obstinate refusal to talk however, referring in this context to his not divulging the top secrets entrusted to his care, will become his dominant characteristic throughout, as well as the controlling metaphor of the movie. The Artist itself refuses to speak just so long as its star does. It is Valentin’s steadfast determination to remain mum, even as the movies find their voice, his hard headed refusal to adapt to the changing times, motivated partly by fear and partly by hubris, that will go on to ruin both his career and his marriage. “Why won’t you talk?” his unhappy wife shrieks at her taciturn, uncommunicative husband. While she’s simply trying to initiate a conversation about their rocky relationship, she might be speaking for his studio’s Louis B. Mayer-like mogul (played with jolly amiability by John Goodman), as well as his legion of fans who are likewise wondering the same thing. It’s stubborn pride that keeps his lips sealed, the unwavering belief that he knows what’s best for himself, despite all evidence to the contrary. Even when he promptly runs his career into the ground trying to strike out on his own with an inept production called Tears of Love, into which he sinks his fortune, he refuses to convert it to sound in order to salvage the debacle. Despite the fact that the writing is on the wall, Valentin resolutely ignores all the red flags heralding the incipient sound wave of the future, leaving his fame and fortune sinking into oblivion, same as his hero sinks beneath the quicksand at the end of his final silent, disappearing beneath dunes that shimmer like sand in an hourglass, indication that his time has run out. It’s such a grandiloquent and humiliating fall, this turn might have worked just as impressively with Emil Jannings in the part.
As conceived, the character’s obdurate refusal to speak may have been inspired by that of Charlie Chaplin, who similarly refused to convert to sound for at least a decade after its introduction, believing silent films were much more artistic. Because of his artistry and enormous popularity with the public, Chaplin’s silent movies continued to make money despite their relative antiquity in relation to the latest technology used in the talkies they played against. The title of The Artist would indicate that Valentin’s silence similarly has to do with a desire to retain some measure of artistic integrity, that he sees silent films as being more artistic and eloquent than crass, clunky talkies. Film history books reinforce this opinion that late silents certainly were cinematically superior to early sound films during those hectic transitional years, and based on this homage, that’s a sentiment director Hazanavicius obviously shares. It’s another reason why he chooses to have his movie remain mum so far into the sound era, as if to prove how little was lacking before its advent.
But if it’s Valentin’s view of himself as a true artiste that prevents him from selling out his talent for what he mistakes for a passing fad, it fails to be clearly conveyed. From what we can tell, he derives no creative fulfillment through his acting. He’s simply a ham who subsists on the spotlight, basking in the reassuring afterglow of the silent applause filtering backstage after his film debuts. His entire sense of self-worth is wrapped up his fans love and approval. The art of the motion picture is nothing more to him than a stepping stone to fame, fortune, public adulation, the gilded life of stardom. I suspect the title is more intended to self-referentially refer to Hazanavicius himself, a director of true artistic integrity who would dare such a non-commercial art house piece, both in black-and-white and silent, in this day and age. And critics and moviemakers swallowed the line, turning The Artist into the most honored and awarded French film in screen history.
While that nightmare makes it apparent that Valentin views sound as something unnatural in a silent world, the implication when no sound emerges from his own mouth, is that he fears not being able to speak, being laughed at in the new medium, but it’s not apparent whether this is because he doesn’t believe his voice is good enough for talking pictures or if he fears sound will shatter his mystique, as it did so many other silent idols whose voices proved unsuitable to their screen personas. The quick, final snatch of spoken dialogue near the end reveals him to have a thick French accent. Our surprise at the fact (at least for those of us who hadn’t already heard Jean Dujardin, the actor playing him, on the award show circuit), is intended to simulate the astonishment of contemporary audiences hearing their hero’s voice for the first time. Certainly this would have been a mitigating factor in Valentin’s fears, since many imported actors in similar straits were sent packing with the emergence of sound. For evidence of how little things have changed, even in this day and age, note that Dujardin, despite his Best Actor Oscar hasn’t exactly become a fixture on the Hollywood screen since his win. No more than fellow countryman Marion Cotillard has become a household name since she became the first French actress to win the Academy Award a few years back. The language barrier still proves a considerable obstacle in a foreign star’s going on to have a successful career this side of the Atlantic.
The underlying reasons why Valentin won’t talk onscreen are never really expressed by him, so his behavior just comes across like blatant willfulness, further expression of his own vanity and that overweening pride his chauffeur Clifton (a stoic James Cromwell) cautions him against. Pride goeth before the fall and when he isn’t basking in the spotlight of adoration, Valentin seems to shrivel up and crumble. Spurning the charity of Peppy and others willing to help when he’s down and out and needs it the most, he instead tries self destructively drinking himself into a stupor to blot out the pain. He’s Norman Maine, living out every successful stars’ worst fear of the eventual day when offers for their services dry up and the attendant fame and fortune fades away. While the name George Valentin is a bowdlerization intended to recall the legendary Valentino, the character, as conceived by scriptwriter Hazanavicius and Dujardin, has actually been comprised of the snips and snails and puppy dog tails of a host of other silent actors. These include the aforementioned Chaplin (Valentin and his dog Uggie, are as inseparable as The Little Tramp and his mutt were in A Dog’s Life), Louis Feuillade’s French serial staple Fantômas (in the face mask and top hat he sports in A Russian Affair, the film that begins the film), maybe a touch of the dapper Max Linder who also committed suicide when his career began to wane, and most directly, America’s own swashbuckling superstar Douglas Fairbanks, clips from whose silent Mark of Zorro are spliced directly into the film, with head shots of Dujardin substituted for Doug.
Many actors have promptly ruined themselves by trying to take their career by the horns, giving their public the picture of themselves they thought fans wanted to see, spurning the sage wisdom of advisers who recognized their limitations It’s just such swellheaded swagger that did in Charles Ray, who was famed in the teens for his depictions of, ironically enough, modestly humble county boys. Ray, like Valentin, established his own production company, sinking a small fortune into a spectacularly inept silent production of The Courtship of Miles Standish. Like Valentin, he never managed to regain his footing on screen after such a crushing debacle.
Dujardin’s previous collaborations with director Hazanavicius and co-star Bejo, OSS 117: Lost in Rio and Cairo, Nest of Spies, devastating parodies of the early James Bond films which played up the French actor’s resemblance to Sean Connery, gave him the priceless opportunity to display his deft talent for artistic mimicry by indulging in spot on caricature. His astonishing skill in this regard was made even more pronounced when Dujardin appeared online in an Oscar season parody, doing hilarious impressions of a host of other celebrities who were meant to be auditioning for the same role. As he went through his runs like an out of control radio station that hadn’t been entirely tuned to the right station, the spot allowed the comic to exhibit a manic, wildly inventive, attention deficit personality that unintentionally invoked the persona of another celebrity entirely – Robin Williams. Dujardin is a talented mimic but his performance as Valentin isn’t simply the work of a gifted impressionist. Instead, it gives him the dream role of any celebrity impersonator, allowing him to condense the traits of many familiar stars, fusing them into a unique new character all his own.
Just as Norman Maine in A Star is Born was inspired by the fates of many suicidal silent stars who hit the bottle after the coming of sound, mainly the insouciant John Gilbert and the less well known John Bowers, it’s equally clear that Valentin is a composite character. He’s meant to represent all silent actors who were shoved aside and witnessed their star fade with talkies, rather than any one in particular, much as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond did. The allusion to Sunset Boulevard is made explicit when Valentin is placed in a similar pose, after descending into poverty and hitting the skids, privately screening his old silent films, which the public will no longer pay to see, in an attempt to relive the glories of the past.
In a scene that’s as horrifying as the earlier nightmare to those among us concerned with silent film preservation, Valentin, in a moment of weakness and self-loathing rips the reels from his film cans and lights a match to the negatives strewn about the floor, unaware of the highly combustible nature of nitrate. He’s soon engulfed in a flash fire and, overcome by the smoke, slips unconscious to the floor. It seems poetic irony that Valentin nearly perishes along with the movies that were meant to preserve him for posterity, as so many silent stars have, their films having been lost forever. Silent emoting, in which performers must use not just their faces but their entire bodies to transmit feelings, thoughts and emotions in the absence of dialogue, is closer in conception to dance than traditionally theatrical, stage-bound acting. It also has firm roots in French pantomime and Pierrot, which may explain French comedienne Dujardin’s seemingly effortless success at bringing off this part. Having mastered the use of body language in place of dialogue during the silent days, it’s logical that his character’s career should be revived by a dancing role in a musical, making him out to be the next Maurice Chevalier.
The disastrously previewed talkie The Dueling Cavalier was saved by similar means, being converted into a musical, The Dancing Cavalier, at the end of Singin’ in the Rain, in which Gene Kelly played a cocky, self absorbed silent star very closely akin to Dujardin’s Valentin. It seems like perfect synergy then that the climactic dance number here should have been rehearsed in the same studio used by Kelly and Debbie Reynolds for that movie, even if it did take The Artist‘s stars longer to learn their tap routine (5 months) than it did to shoot the film (35 days). Silent movies were never really silent, and composer Ludovic Bource’s picture-length score carries The Artist, enhancing its finer points and subliminally manipulating our emotions. In the absence of dialogue or any other distractions, silent films provided an ideal showcase for original compositions and musical arrangements, but it’s the enchantment of dance that seems most intrinsic to this movie.
It’s embedded in the very fluidity of the actor’s movements and the graceful flow of their contours, which are choreographed in a manner so pleasing to the eye. Everything seems to fall just right, so it’s fitting that the movie should wrap with a climactic song and dance number, proving that sound, when handled properly, can be just as melodious as it can discordant. It’s a revelation which serves to revive Valentin’s career, along with his faith in the medium. When Valentin followed his red carpet premiere with a personal appearance on stage, he threw out a little soft-shoe tap as a sop to the fans. When he later comes across Peppy at the studio, she’s hidden behind a partial with only her shimmying legs visible, and it’s her talented gams that transfix him, just as they had the casting director in the studio lot.
They fall in love whirling around the ballroom in that reel of film so treasured by Valentin he’s discovered still clutching it, in a death grip, after the fire. Audiences have been primed so carefully in this manner the entire film long, the bouncy last reel interlude, during which The Artist explodes in such effervescent abandon that even the sound barrier is broken, seems like the perfect reprise. Just as Garbo insisted former silent screen lover John Gilbert be cast opposite her in Queen Christina, the saving grace of Valentin being cast in this career saving musical is orchestrated for him by his own guardian angel. With her wide, face splitting grin, Bérénice Bejo’s Peppy Miller resembles none of the petite, plump Victorian dolls that populated screens of the silent days. Instead, she sports the short, Marceau wave, slim figure and flat chest that was popular during the Roaring Twenties, a time when women were first beginning to stress their equality by trying to downplay the physical differences between the sexes. Her gaunt features, buried beneath costume designer Mark Bridges’ Oscar winning cloche hats and the beaded, drop waist flapper dresses that swathe her thin, leggy frame (all boney, akimbo angles), seem to point fashion forward, toward the hungry, angular art deco heroines of the Depression era, which is likely why it takes the coming of talkies to elevate her to fame. She represents the future, carries it in her very bone structure. Her brashly American, optimistic can do quality (which is preserved by not letting slip the actress’ French accent) is also at total odds with Valentin’s European fatalism. Bejo is a woman on a mission, like one of Harold Lloyd’s plucky go-getters, and the actress has the gangling limbed gaucheness of a great slapstick comedian as well. Infectious and enlivening, she’s like a sexless Clara Bow, and just as the vivacious Bow did in so many of her movies, Peppy provides pep to the picture and to Valentin’s life, constantly looking out for him (as their perceptive chauffeur observes), saving him from the brink of financial ruin, even suicide, pulling him back toward life, away from the edge as he increasingly sinks into alcoholic despair.
Her selfless devotion recalls that of Lillian Gish in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, who sold the family cow to secretly finance a faithless man, much as Peppy serves as silent buyer during Valentin’s public auction. Her poignant pantomime, when she slips her arm into the sleeve of Valentine’s overcoat, making believe he’s embracing her, also brings to mind Gish’s similar, beguiling bit with that tattered scarecrow in A Romance of Happy Valley, who she forced into tender service to stand in place of her absent lover. Getting her start as a chorus girl, like Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, and working her way up, Peppy can’t help standing out from the crowd. In fact she topples out of it the first time she bumps into Valentin, among the fans queued to ogle the self-enchanted star who is clowning and flexing for their entertainment. When she proves to be as big a ham as he is, mugging shamelessly for the cameras in order to get her picture plastered across the papers, an unknown girl in the company of a major Hollywood star, he knows he’s met his match. The influence of A Star is Born is quite evident in this relationship’s basic dynamic, as the blameless young ingénue whose star is on the rise meets and falls in love with the self-pitying, alcoholic matinee idol who’s fame is swiftly fading. The theme is established visually as the two cross paths later, on a multi-tiered staircase seemingly borrowed from a famous gag in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman. While shot on location at the central atrium of the Bradbury Building in L.A., the stairs are meant to represent the ladder of social mobility, Peppy on the way up, Valentin down.
It’s Valentin who gives Peppy her initial break in the biz and the beauty mark that distinguishes her from the crowded ranks of the interchangeable chorines. It’s a completely magnanimous gesture and even after her fame begins to eclipse his own, he never regrets it or regards her as a monster he helped create. For Peppy’s part, her gratitude is unbounded and her secret Santa gestures toward Valentin gives the movie its most poignant moments. She returns the gift of stardom he gave her many times over, secretly funding the auction of Valentin’s possessions (our initial impression when we see a woman from behind is that Peppy herself is in attendance), buying them up and storing them away in her keeping until he is able to reclaim them. It’s a gallant gesture, but from Valentin’s violent reaction upon his discovery of the treachery, one would think she’d been picking over the bones. The gender politics inherent in this story of a man and woman competing in the same career is also carried over directly from A Star is Born. Because the primping, preening profession of acting has traditionally been considered suitable occupation for females however, The Artist never really deals with the underlying sexual animosity engendered between the two as Valentin feels increasingly emasculated by this woman who has undermined his ability to support himself. His fury arises from his humiliating realization that he’s been unwittingly benefiting from her generosity all along; that she pities him. It undermines his masculine pride to be so looked down on, forced into the inferior position of living off a woman.
For her part, Peppy placates him by downplaying her own considerable accomplishments as an actress. She seems downright apologetic about having proven more successful at her man’s job than he is himself, and her desire to save him is motivated as much by a need to soothe her guilty conscience. She sees how her future in sound is only secured at the price of expendable silent stars like Valentin, who she’s displacing. When her picture opens opposite his, she tries to drum up business by going to see Valentin’s, one of the few people in attendance still willing to sit through an archaic silent. It’s not a favor he’ll deign to return until later when, down on his luck and forced to eat humble pie, he seems to have learned his lesson and anonymously attends her latest release. Once the characters come to accept their reversals of fortune, the ending can go even further, throwing the traditional silent movie race to the rescue off its axis since in this case it’s the woman who sets off to save her man. Though she’s never driven before, Peppy peels away in the car herself when Clifton can’t be located, setting off across town on a heart stopping mission to prevent Valentin from doing away with himself. As proof of her devotion she throws caution to the wind, racing to the rescue with furs flying, taking her own life in her hands. Swerving out of her lane and into the path of onrushing traffic, Peppy seems in as much danger behind the wheel as Valentin, who’s playing Russian roulette with that gun. Though she displays none of Valentin’s trepidation at tackling new technology, it’s likely Peppy’s lack of driving lessons is intended to be seen as symptomatic of women’s immobilized state at the time, forced to rely on men to get out of the house. Still, it seems so odd in this day and age, to see a grown woman who can’t drive, we’re uncertain whether we’re supposed to be laughing or in serious suspense for her safety. As with Harold Lloyd, climbing that clock face in Safety Last, which Hugo paid direct homage to earlier in the year, maybe we’re meant to experience a bit of both emotions, jeopardy and comedy simultaneously. The wife of Hazanavicius, this role is a gift to Bejo and he has the film’s other females, Valentine’s co-star (Missi Pyle) and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), both made up as identical blondes so that his brunet leading lady will stand out all the more distinctly. A curious physical cross between Christine Baranski and a French Mia Farrow, Hazanavicius’ love for his actress is expressed in every frame, so that we can see the same qualities that made the director fall for her as we watch Valentin slowly falling in love himself. She’s really quite wonderful and not since Holly Hunter in The Piano has a wordless performance seemed this incandescent. Her most beguiling scene may be when she keeps invalid Valentin entertained by pantomiming the events of the day, much as legend tells us Lon Chaney regaled his deaf-mute parents as a boy. Events prime us to expect Peppy to deliver that famous ‘This is Mrs. Norman Maine’ speech to a coast-to-coast radio hookup at the final fade, but she ends up surprising us. Instead, radio is the enemy here, joining the conspiracy to usher in the new sound technology. As evidence of how harmful talk can be, in a scene many celebrities can identify with, Peppy makes a pretentious fool of herself during an on air interview by unthinkingly gabbing about the death of silents and the future of talkies, burning bridges unbeknownst to her by insulting people like Valentin who’s sitting at the table opposite. She immediately regrets her unthinking words at the thought of how they must have hurt the man who gave her her big break. To Valentine, they make Peppy seem like a harbinger of the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ sound mentality, the embodiment of all the forces that are conspiring to crush him. When she opens her mouth, frogs fall out, which is precisely why he fears public speaking. Just as cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman recreates the dulcet, shimmering tones of silver nitrate (the movie was originally shot in color then converted over), director Hazanavicius attempts to approximate the elementary, black-and-white emotions of silent film. His script can get away with a greater measure of shallowness in characterization and narrative explication on the grounds that this too mirrors the more primary appeal of silents.
But there’s a strange disconnect when we segue from the movie within the movie to what is meant to be events occurring behind the scenes and they are presented to us with the same unrealistic exaggeration and facility. There’s no way we can distinguish between what is meant to be movie and real life when both betray the same fundamental lack of attachment to reality. And it’s misleading for a director who loves silent movies as much as Hazanavicius apparently does to imply that all silents were this thematically straightforward and stylistically simplistic. You’d think he had never heard of Gance’s Napoleon, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box or Murnau’s The Last Laugh, even while claiming Murnau’s Sunrise and City Girl to have been primary influences on production designer Laurence Bennett, art director Gregory Hooper and set decorator Robert Gould. One would think silence was a stylistic end in itself, as if German Expressionism and Russian montage hadn’t exerted their own dominant influences at various times. Movies had achieved a startling measure of shading and nuance by the end of the silent period, which is when The Artist is supposed to be set. That’s why their passing was mourned by so many lovers of the art. The brilliance of silents was that they learned to imply so much visually, without saying a word. But what can be construed from the unflagging fidelity of James Cromwell’s chauffeur, who refuses to leave his master’s side, even after he falls on hard times and can no longer pay him. This is the way faithful old family retainers in movies like Imitation of Life and Since You Went Away used to behave. Clifton won’t abandon Valentin’s sinking ship even after he’s fired for his own good, standing for days out by his limo on the street below, refusing to budge. When he glances at Uggie, Valentin’s other faithful companion, with a look of bemused affinity and fellow feeling, it’s apparent that he recognizes the similarity in their shared, dog-like devotion to their master.
Cromwell is playing a variation on Erich von Stroheim’s butler from Sunset Boulevard, but we still don’t know whether we’re supposed to laugh at the reduction of human emotional scope to such a rudimentary level or be touched by this display of selfless fidelity. And what, pray tell, does all this have to say about the relationship of capital vs. labor? Eisenstein would be aghast. It’s no surprise Clifton should subsequently fall into the employ of Peppy, the one other person who can equal him for flagellating selflessness and devotion.
This French film can likewise make no contemporary sense of the American racial schematics of the day, and so superficially reiterates them without comment, or even irony. Our only ethnic visions come to us in the form of blacks depicted as primitive savages in Valentin’s safari picture and Ken Davitian (from Borat) as a haggling pawnbroker who Jews Valentin down on the tux he brings in to sell. On his way out, Valentin (a merciful Christian), places one of the spare dollars he received for his trouble in the offering plate by the door. The real star that was born out of this enterprise was Uggie, the Jack Russell Terrier who plays Valentin’s dog and appeared in Water for Elephants earlier in the year. Actually three different dogs played the part here, but Uggie had the lion’s share of the most important scenes. He was even colored to enhance his resemblance to Asta from The Thin Man films in an attempt to strengthen the association with Hollywood past. As Asta so often did opposite William Powell and Myrna Loy, Uggie also provides much of the movie’s warmth and humor with his perfectly trained ‘human’ responses, such as his on cue reactions, which are synched with Valentin’s movements during his wife’s harangue over breakfast. Uggie is elevated into the preternatural ranks of Rin Tin Tin when he chases down a Keystone cop on the beat (Joel Murray) and leads him back to Valentin’s house which is engulfed in flame.
Animals are said to be a bitch to work with, like the most temperamental and undependable of prima donnas, but they evoke such easy reactions in audiences it’s clear why directors put in the time and trouble. The early, cutesy scene where Uggie keels over and plays dead after Valentin mimics shooting him for hogging the spotlight onstage, for instance, assumes greater depth and meaning when it is poignantly invoked again at the end, with the frantic dog desperately trying to prevent his master from shooting himself for real this time. It’s endearing, even if it is the same shtick Clint Eastwood went through with that orangutan in Any Which Way but Loose. Monkey see, monkey do. In essence, this silent movie has been conceived as a moral parable on the theme of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’ It’s a controlling metaphor embodied by that bronze of the three wise monkeys Valentin owns and which keeps popping up at emotionally evocative moments to belabor the point. George first ‘hears’ the evil of sound in his nightmare, which heralds the incipient talkie revolution. He overhears Peppy ‘speaking’ of it during her squawkbox interview, designed to denigrate his craft. His epic downfall is complete as he experiences the final horror of ‘seeing’ it as the veil is torn from his eyes and the truth, namely the vital role talkie star Peppy has played in keeping his head above water, is completely revealed to him. Bouncy and entertaining, The Artist doesn’t possess the same resonances as the movies that inspired it, that it pays tribute to, but that’s really through no fault of its own. A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain all came along at just the right time, when the Hollywood industry was still within living memory of its silent past, when old timers working on set could still claim to have been around in those days and to have witnessed firsthand the chaos that the coming of sound wrought. Their personal memories and experiences influenced and informed those films, helping to shape them.
As each passing year removes us further and further from that period, films like this no longer have that deep, immediate connection with their own material. Consequently, as a movie, The Artist feels at least once removed. It seems as much a salute to movies about silent movies as a salute to silent movies themselves. This imparts the impression of a one trick wonder, the likes of which were popular in the 70’s, when throwback titles were all the rage. Movies like Nickelodeon; Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood; At Long Last Love; Bugsy Malone; Roseland; The Boyfriend; Pennies from Heaven; etc., nostalgically attempted to pay homage to the look, feel and attendant charm of old time movies, to bring back comforting qualities that were felt to have vanished from the harsher, more realistic, contemporary cinema. The Artist is much like this, and the perfect silencer to the nostalgic who claim that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
With this film, director Hazanavicius has set himself the challenge of being both self-referentially derivative, while still surprising and entertaining us with the same familiar old routines. He tries to make everything old seem both warmly familiar and brand new again. But asking The Artist to be on a par with the classics that inspired it is asking it to be a modern masterpiece, and that’s asking too much. Modern masterpieces, like the classic ones, are as rare as gold dust. Instead, The Artist is a painstaking recreation of a pleasantly charming silent piffle, distinguished by Hazanavicius’ glowing love of the form, which radiates from every frame. And it offers the most persuasive evidence to date of the French director’s flair for flawlessly aping the look and feel of films from cinema past. But in the wake of his successful, swinging 60’s James Bond spoofs, to many it may seem like simply more of the same.
Actress Kim Novak stirred up controversy by taking exception to The Artist‘s use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo theme, but considering that Hazanavicius has staked his claim to fame on just such artistic sampling, it seemed like a strange case of stating the obvious. Movies are full of artistic cross pollination; they don’t blossom fully formed from a vacuum. Still, one shudders to think that the director is destined to go on feeding off the successes of Hollywood’s past by satirizing successful old movie forms, the way Mel Brooks was wont to do for a period of time with limiting efforts like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie and High Anxiety. As a work of art, The Artist is very much all of a piece, but in addition to expressing its director’s love of silent cinema, it seems just as concerned with condemning the more mercenary aspects of the film business itself. Consequently it’s the type of screen exercise that speaks more deeply to industry insiders than it does the fickle movie going public it’s both beholden to and mistrustful of. And we find ourselves evaluating the director’s work here by an odd measuring stick, judging The Artist more by Hazanavicius’ success at approximating the visual quirks and clichés of the cinematic past, than as an autonomous, self-contained film-about-film, the way we do Scorsese’s Hugo.
There’s precious little to Hazanavicius’ labor of love beyond its quaint, stylistic gimmick, no real attempt to comment meaningfully on the silent cinema. And the disappointment for those of us who love silents is that there’s nothing truly original here; it’s simply a pastiche of the past. There’s also no indication that the movie has succeeded in doing what one might have hoped, which is pique the interest of modern audiences to check out old silents, spurring a renaissance of interest in the art. I suppose it says something about the state of modern movies that the two most vaunted films of the year both looked backward, expressing in differing ways the same sense of unconditional love for early film. The Artist perfectly captured French director Hazanavicius’ love for American silent movies, while Martin Scorsese paid tribute to French film history in Hugo.
For Hugo, Scorsese forayed into 3D for the first time and took full advantage of every modern, cutting edge means at his disposal to get his vision across. Hugo was a fantasy fable built upon the same whimsical trick work first pioneered by its own screen subject, George Méliès, while showing us just how far special effects had advanced in the last hundred years. Which film best expressed its director’s love of silents is a tossup of course, like comparing apples to oranges, but I imagine true silent movie lovers would be more inclined to gravitate toward The Artist, which fondly seeks to reappraise the old rather than advance the new. Hazanavicius would probably have felt it a betrayal to wrap his love for silent cinema in the latest technical tinsel, the likes of which so horrify his main character and served to supplant silents in the first place. Instead, he takes the exact opposite tact, regressing film back to its infancy to persuasively demonstrate just how eloquently and expressively movies could speak to audiences before they ever learned to talk.
By stylistically turning back the clock, The Artist shows how far film had already advanced prior to the coming of sound and what dreamlike fluidity and grace was lost with the passing of silents. In addition to Peppy’s radio address, there are other choice demonstrations of how badly talk can hurt, such as the extras’ open mockery during Valentin’s nightmare, a montage of gossipy mouths saying catty things, and a policeman’s callous words to Valentin, which thankfully go untranslated. The drama even ends with a literal Bang!, as that crucial word appears with such finality on a title card, slyly intending to mislead audiences into assuming the generic sound represents Valentin’s fatal gunshot. A real silent would have found a visual to represent the action, or used a sound effect. Silents in those final years had been moving further and further from a reliance on titles which interrupted the flow of the images, toward a completely fluid visual medium. Ideally, representative images could be found to take the place of words, and cue cards dispensed with altogether.
The most wondrous aspect of the silent medium The Artist does manage to recapture is one it may be entirely incognizant of. This French film cast with a pan-international assortment of actors (Dujardin and Bejo are both French, Goodman’s American, Cromwell’s Australian), directed by a Frenchman and marketed by an American distribution company, is a prime example of how the lack of dialogue in silent film made it a truly universal art, devoid of the sort of language barriers that serve as roadblocks to the enjoyment of films from other countries now.
If The Artist weren’t silent, this co-production financed by French and Belgium backers would’ve been relegated to the ranks of foreign language films, with only moderate marketing and limited release in this country. In no other format but silents would two French actors like Dujardin and Bejo, little known outside their own country, possess such immediate appeal and seem so open and accessible that they could be embraced by Hollywood in the form of Oscar nominations. It’s no wonder the high minded artisans of the silent era believed film was an art form that could bring the world together. Nearly a century after talkies rang down the curtain on that dream, we’re still being distracted from the visual flow of foreign films, our attention redirected to the fine print at the bottom of the screen.