Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Produced by Thomas Langmann, Emmanuel Montamat. Music by Ludovic Bource. Photographed by Guillaume Schiffman. Edited by Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius. Production designed by Laurence Bennett. Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Joel Murray.
If the year 2011 will be remembered in Hollywood, it will be remembered as the year when two things occurred. Firstly, it was the year where female-driven pictures were successfully married to bathroom humor, as seen by the box office success of not just Bridesmaids but also, believe it or not, The Help. And it might also be remembered as the year in which Hollywood looked deep into the past for inspiration. Steven Spielberg delivered his ode to John Ford movies with War Horse (as well as another dip in his favorite well, that of of old serials, with Tintin). J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg created Super 8, which is a loving tribute to the work of…well, Steven Spielberg, which is kind of weird if you think about it. Martin Scorsese made Hugo, which is half a children’s picture and half a thorough history lesson on the pioneers of cinema. Woody Allen made his most financially successful picture of all time with Midnight in Paris, which engages nostalgia in…oh, shall we say…a very immediate way. And of course, there were plenty of remakes and sequels, spinning further gold out of old properties like The Muppets, Planet of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, The Smurfs. They even remade Straw Dogs, and that was just plain unnecessary.
And then, standing apart from these films in terms of class, craftsmanship, and sophistication (with the possible exception of Hugo) is The Artist. The Artist, which is a front-runner for a best picture nomination, may very well be the most fun you could have at a movie this year–or last year. It is a vibrant and endearing love letter to old Hollywood, dripping with energy and invention. And it plays with the big stuff…the sweeping themes and grand statements that make us fall in love with the movies in the first place: the peaks of romance, the deepest valleys of despair, and all the highs and lows in between. Pure melodrama, yes, but done with such style and conviction that we get involved. We care. Oh, and the film is silent.
Okay, I admit that I may have just buried the lead.
Already I’ve lost a few readers, I know. How can the most entertaining film of 2011 be a silent movie? Silent movies don’t get much respect these days outside of the circles of film lovers. When I was younger, cable would play them constantly on Saturday mornings, as an antidote for kids who were outgrowing network cartoons and looking to expand their horizons. Nowadays they’re banished to midnight airings on Turner Classic Movies, and most casual movie fans’ know perhaps the names of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Farbanks, they don’t see much of them. A shame.
But the task of getting people in the theater gets even more daunting. The notion of going to see a silent film certainly strikes a sour note in most people’s imaginations. Possibly because that mode of storytelling is “outdated,” or maybe because something so old-fashioned couldn’t possibly resonate with their modern sensibilities. Or maybe some people just don’t like standing still and quiet for that long, which a silent movie would more or less enforce. Their loss.
For the rest of us, The Artist is a reminder of everything we go to the movies for: humor, romance, pathos, drama, wonderful images, and above all—commitment. I’ve found, as I grow older, that as a moviegoer what I really want to see is commitment, whether it’s to a concept, or a character, to craft, or even to a crazy stunt (supreme commitment to stuntwork helped make Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol one of my top 10 films of the year, because it is just so well made that it silences complaints). The Artist commits to a central conceit—that it is a period picture told using the silent vernacular, and stays true to that conceit. It does play with the format. It has jokes, and riffs on the material, and provides unexpected wrinkles within the form, intended to make a point. But it never winks, it never condescends, and it never feels the need to apologize for being a silent film, despite the fact that some small-minded persons may desire that apology. Nothing doing.
Besides, The Artist is literally a “silent” movie in much the same way that most silent movies are “silent.” That is to say, not at all. Like all silent movies it has a score that accompanies the image: Ludovic Borce’s music underlines and shapes the material in a delicious, borderline-operatic way. He evokes a world of love, success, and fleeting fame so effortlessly it almost feels, at times, that the images have been generated in response to the music, rather than the other way around. The score is so good at gradually nudging the emotions (rather than flatly shoehorning them in), that when a little bit of Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo sneaks its way in during a climactic moment, we notice but don’t really mind, because the movie is able to get away with it.
The Artist draws upon film’s ability to simplify—to create, for example, instant archetypes. When he have dialogue and color, something gets…well, not lost, but certainly more complicated. Here, the characters and their story are boiled down to their simplest essence, and become naturally larger than life. The heroine Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo), with her luminous eyes, perfect cheekbones and natural dancing ability, doesn’t just become a movie star within the plot of the film. She becomes a Movie Star. Capital Letters. The loyal, sad manservant Clifton (James Cromwell) is the ultimate Loyal, Sad Manservant. John Goodman appears as a studio head, and he distills the essence of a Studio Head into a grand, theatrical performance. And as for our hero, the actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), with his wide smile and disarming swagger, his personality that has dashes of Gene Kelly and Errol Flynn…he’s not just an artist. He’s The Artist. The title of the film is specifically and purposefully chosen.
The plot: Valentin, one of the preeminent actors in old (1920s-era) Hollywood, is riding the last wave of fame before crashing down into the world of “talking pictures.” The studio heads know the future and are trying to prepare for it, while the talent is convinced such an acquiescence would be the end of the industry as they know it, and thank God that argument has never popped up again in recent years. One night at a premiere, Valentin greets a throng of fans and bumps into the beautiful Peppy Miller, who is then a nobody with big dreams and big chutzhpah, going so far as to kiss the cheerful star for curious photographers. This causes issue with Valentin’s marriage, although to be fair, it is one issue among many.
Peppy, it must be said, is a born dancer, and what with one thing or another, she finds herself as an extra in a movie Valentin is starring in, soon graduating to a dancing extra, and later she is the woman that George Valentin cannot get out of his mind. I’ve seen lots of backstage love stories, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen where romance is established and developed through a series of film-within-a-film outtakes. Simple, yet ingenious.
Valentin bestows a great gift upon Peppy, using an eyebrow pencil to draw a mole on her face that distinguishes her from the crowd, and soon becomes a bit of a trademark. Before you know it, Peppy is everywhere and George is nowhere, having burned his bridges staunchly refusing the transition to talkies, believing his real voice would get him laughed out of Hollywood. Instead, Valentin goes solo and spends his capital instead on a traditional adventure picture that is met with yawns, while across the street Peppy’s film makes big bucks. Valentin is hit hard, and when the stock market crash of 1929 finishes the job, his wife leaves, he sells his possessions and mansion, and finds himself occupying a shabby apartment with his manservant Clifton, who remembers its been a year since he’s been paid, but will not budge from his master’s side.
If you squint a little, you can see the echoes here of the best movie ever made about making Hollywood movies, Singin’ in the Rain. That movie’s plot was also structured on the transition between silent pictures and talkies, also had a love story between an aging Hollywood star and a doe-eyed hoofer he meets through a chance encounter, and also lingered on persons that would be swept aside when the full transition to talking pictures occurred. Dujardin reminds us, a little bit, of Gene Kelly, just like Béjo reminds us a tiny bit of Debbie Reynolds. Both main characters even have a cute sidekick: in Singin’ in the Rain it’s Donald O’Connor, who brings the house down with the phenomenal “Make ‘em Laugh,” musical number, while in The Artist it’s Uggie the dog, who has personality to spare and also good instincts. O’Connor might have been funnier and more acrobatic, but Uggie does a pretty good job of it, too…considering the fact that he’s, you know, a dog.
The key difference between The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain, of course, is the weight in which it bestows the talking picture transition. In Singin’ in the Rain it is the villain who is not ready for sound, and is dragged kicking and screaming from the business by getting her just deserts. The Artist, however, finds drama in the self-doubts of Valentin, who is convinced sound would mean the death knell of his career. The difference is essential because Singin’ in the Rain’s plot is fashioned simply, for musical comedy. The Artist’s plot is also relatively simple, but depends more on emotions and fears.
There are other echoes, too, of the general plot of A Star is Born, and also real-life Hollywood (our central couple is curiously remniscent of the on-screen/off-screen pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Garbo, who had a lovely voice, made the transition from silents to talkies just fine (“Garbo talks!” said the ads). Gilbert? Not as lucky. And could the name George Valentin be a play on Rudolph Valentino, who died tragically, just like Valentin imagines himself? Maybe. Maybe indeed.
To summarize more of the story would be unfair. Let me instead pick out my favorite moments from The Artist, such as the way it recaptures old Hollywood effortlessly, even for a tiny-budget production shooting in downtown L.A. and Beverly Hills. Or the way the films plays with the format, like a dream that Dujardin has where everything is upside down. Or the little plights of Clifton and the dog, who are perhaps better companions than Valentin sometimes deserves. And a key scene that involves a special reel of film, which is matched by an eerie moment involving a room full of shrouded objects, which is lit and shot like something out of Citizen Kane. And there’s a wonderful gag in the middle of the climax that I wouldn’t dream of revealing. But you’ll know it when you see it.
The Artist makes a convincing case, in this era of dialogue-stuffed movies where no one says anything interesting, for the silent film. Consider the aforementioned outtake scene, or one a little bit later where Peppy, alone in Valentin’s dressing room, leans up close and hugs his coat. Such a warm, telling, and wordless moment. Other scenes have dialogue but give greater weight to the faces: Peppy’s flaky attempt to deliver an ultimatum to Goodman’s studio head is funnier than the exact same scene with dialogue would be, because a film made today would race through the befuddled looks that make it work. Other, smaller moments even poke fun at extraneous verbage, such as when an auctioneer congratulates Valentin: “You’ve sold all your possessions!” And of course, Valentin gives a bitter laugh, because that information (conveyed via title card for your benefit) was of course information he did not need.
The Artist reminds us, once again, that film is primarily about images, not words. Every few years we get another reminder of that fact, whether it is the opening of Wall-E, the opening of There Will Be Blood, or the entirety of The Triplets of Belleville. There is such trust on display here. Not just for the actors (who have to carry this movie on their looks), but also on the audience to sit still for it. Most Hollywood movies these days don’t trust anything, which is why you get endless test screenings, demographic surveys, and generally speaking, pieces of work with all the sharp edges shaved off.
Watching The Artist, I was transported, in a way that I haven’t been by very many films this year. That speaks more to the overall lackluster quality of releases in 2011, but also speaks to the fact that whatever criticisms you may have of The Artist (its characters and plot are thin, it’s emotions are facile), the film is more or less perfect at doing exactly what is sets out to do, and that is a supreme, rare accomplishment. Some would call the silent technique a gimmick, but I say that’s incorrect . If the whole thing didn’t work, then it would be a gimmick. And you know what? I saw this movie in a packed theater on a busy weeknight, and every single person in the theater, despite any misgiving they might have had going in, was perfectly quiet. Transfixed, you might say. Redeemed by the power of a great film.
It is good to be reminded of that.