“The Artist” is a unique film, a tribute to the silent film era, as well as a subtle commentary on the contemporary film industry that has traded silence for explosions and drama for celebrity gossip.
By Noah Gittell
Oscar buzz for the film started after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where its star, Jean Dujardin, won Best Actor, and it will likely pick up a handful of awards at the ceremony in February, as well. The Academy loves a movie that loves movies.
“The Artist” transcends its intended homage and achieves the same deep, rewarding drama that the best silent films all contained. It is a funny and sad movie that tells a universal story of a hero’s tragic decline and ultimate redemption.
The film opens with a few scenes from what we recognize as a silent typical of its era. After a moment, we pull back to reveal an audience watching the film and the key players – the lead actor, the ingénue, and the producer – backstage awaiting the audience’s reaction. These opening scenes serve two purposes. First, to introduce the meta-commentary that will be present throughout the film. Your head may swim as you try to stay above the subtext. The second purpose is to establish the milieu; the sad truth is that many people watching “The Artist” won’t know much about silent films. They won’t know that audience members used to think of a night at the movies as a real night on the town and often dressed in formalwear to attend. They won’t know that a live band often provided the score, much more vital to a silent film than a talkie. Lastly, and most importantly, they won’t know how deeply audiences were affected by these films.
The story itself does not exactly break new ground. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a charismatic, pompous silent film star who discovers a new talent, the perky, young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). These two have chemistry that extends beyond the silver screen, but just as his star is at its height and her’s begins to ascend, the world interferes: the talkie is born. Fans of “Singin’ in the Rain” or, perhaps, Charlie Chaplin’s career will know what happens next. Valentin resists the change and suffers, while Miller embraces it and thrives, all while romance between the two seems to exist just out of their grasp, their passion for each other constantly interrupted by their own ambition.
If the story sounds unoriginal, remember, it is an homage. Most of the silent films from the time period portrayed in the “The Artist” were fairly predictable, as well. But there are moments of fancy – including one spectacular dream sequence in which Valentin’s reality, and our own, is toyed with – that transcend these criticisms. And the final scene, which follows redemption with a deep melancholy, is both unexpected and necessary.
This is the second film to be released in the last six weeks whose subject is early film. Previously reviewed in this space, “Hugo” tells the story of George Melies, who pushed the boundaries of film in the early 20th century and then suffered a rapid decline, only to find new appreciators of his work later in life. That film was shot in 3D, a technology that director Martin Scorsese has publicly embraced.
The creative team behind “The Artist” chooses a different route – celebrating the past by imitating it. It is clear, however, that both films are a response to the digital age, in which it may soon be no longer possible to hold up a reel of film to light to see its contents (a scene that finds its way into both films).
“The Artist” is consistent in its love and admiration for a warmer and simpler time, when film had fewer dimensions but forged a deeper connection.