Hard to believe, I know. But after seeing The Artist, it’s not difficult to understand what Academy voters love so much about it. Despite a gimmick that suggests something edgy and artsy, the movie is actually a pretty rousing crowd pleaser. The Academy loves movies that get the emotions stirring, but that are also easy to digest (that’s why The King’s Speech upset The Social Network a year ago). How much of a crowd pleaser is The Artist? So much so that our hero, a silent film star named George Valentin, has a sidekick that happens to be an adorable, showboating little terrier.
Everybody loves a cute dog that does tricks. If you don’t, you’re probably made of stone, and if you don’t like The Artist, you probably are as well. Written and directed by Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, the movie stars Jean Dujardin as an egomaniacal but suave and kindly Douglas Fairbanks-type movie star who resists the emergence of sound out of foolish pride. Valentine also believes that film should stay a silent art form, and to make his case, the movie itself, aesthetically, takes on the characteristics of a silent movie: a quaint, old Hollywood opening credit sequence; inter-titles; a boxier aspect ratio; and performances that stress physicality and pantomime.
Astutely, Hazanavicius knows that to recreate the silent film form is not enough—you have to capture its essence. Famously associated with Charlie Chaplin, the blend of comedy and pathos, in a lot of ways, defines the Hollywood silent era. Hazanavicius takes that principle to the bank. Early on in the film, George meets a beautiful up-and-comer named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and even helps her with her young film career. The Artist starts out as a darling comedy, utilizing its actors’ charisma, chemistry and physical skills to delight us. Then, as Peppy rises to fame for her roles in Talkies just as Valentin fades into anonymity and poverty for rejecting them, the film becomes the tragedy of a Hollywood has-been left on the outside of a changing industry.
It could be read as a timely cautionary tale to those filmmakers resistant to the ever-advancing wow-factor of 3-D, but The Artist, to me, is not nearly so cynical or foreboding. Like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, it’s a film about looking back at the magic that once graced the silver screen—and attempting to relate its appeal to contemporary audiences with the hope that it won’t be forgotten. In that way, The Artist is wonderful. In other ways, it’s a pastiche—a film buried up to its neck in homage. Hollywood romantic swooning; an avante garde nightmare sequence; and the jagged, imposing shadows and crooked staircases of expressionism: all the big silent movements make appearances, as they should. But when I heard Bernard Herrmann’s yearning, emotive and brilliant Vertigo theme scored over the climax, I thought: how much of this film is borrowed? Does it really have its own identity?
The topic is debatable, indeed. But what can’t be denied or ignored are the astounding lead performances. As Valentin, Dujardin has the slicked hair, Errol Flynn mustache, and dapper grin of a virile presence too comfortable with his own star power. How his character goes from top-of-the-world leading man to Hollywood road kill, forced to auction his possessions after his dispassionate wife (Penelope Ann Miller) leaves him high and dry, is testament to the actor’s range and skill at eliciting emotion. As the pretty ingénue who refuses to forget his legacy, Bejo is an equally engaging emotional force on the screen. Whether smiling big with her bright ear-to-ear grin or wiping away a single tear outside the auction where Valentin’s treasures are being hauled away by strangers, Bejo encapsulates drama’s (and life’s) great pleasures and great sorrows.
Mostly, the film makes the brave assertion that the essence of performance is not dialogue, but the look of an actor’s eyes or the furrow of a brow or the quiver of a lip. More than anything, The Artist makes you appreciate the most fundamental technique and emotional power of fine screen acting. The story itself, an orthodox tale of fall and redemption, serves up several well-delivered payoffs and unfolds with a sweet-natured and clear-eyed approach that’s refreshing in its earnestness, even if it does sacrifice true complexity of character. Ultimately, The Artist is an infectious little movie about what made the silent era so magical, but it falls just short of being a great silent film in its own right—which I believe was its foremost intention.