About midway through 2011, there was Hobo with a Shotgun, which was made in homage to the grindhouse films of the ’70s. Near the end of 2011, there was War Horse, a movie that might have felt right at home in a theater during the 1950s. And somewhere in between the two, there was Hugo, which loudly and zealously sung the praises of 1920s cinema magic.
But all of these cinematic tributes to the movies of yesteryear pale in comparison to The Artist. This isn’t just a tribute to 1920s silent films, it pretty much is a 1920s silent film. Not only is this a period picture, but it’s shot in black and white, and the sound is completely score. Any dialogue is done entirely through the occasional title card. There are a few rare exceptions to these rules, but let’s take it from the top.
This is the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film superstar of the Roaring ’20s. Not only was he impossibly good looking, but he was quick with a joke and he could dance with the best of them. It’s of course up for interpretation as to whether or not he can sing as well, but the film seems to imply that he’s an actor blessed with great looks who quickly fell into obscurity because his voice was awful. That sort of thing was more common than you might think back then. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. The salient point is that because George is so talented and famous, he has an enormous ego.
Early in the film, he discovers Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a beautiful young ingenue who turns out to be a first-class entertainer in her own right. Though George plays a vital mentor role at the start of Peppy’s career, nothing really comes of their obvious attraction to each other, partly because George already has a wife.
Two years later, the talking picture is born. Peppy is cast in all the latest talkies, while George holds fast to silent pictures, going so far as to write and direct his own silent movie to prove that the style isn’t dead. Naturally, Peppy’s movie debuts to tremendous success while George’s film tanks. That, in addition to the market crash and his own incredible ego, drives George to ruin. By the climax, George has either lost or given away everything he has, save only for his loyal (and adorable) dog.
Now, it’s important to remember that this is all done as a silent picture, and the filmmakers are good enough not to bring a title card unless absolutely necessary. This means that there isn’t a single redundant word of dialogue in the entire film. And since the movie is also monochrome, the filmmakers had to move the plot forward without the use of sound or color, which have become two of the most essential tools in any modern director’s kit. Luckily, writer/director Michel Hazanavicius (please don’t make me try to spell that again) proves himself to be no common filmmaker and finds all manner of ways to make his film work.
For starters, the cast is so varied that the only kind of actor you won’t find in this film is a bad one. You’ve got actors who are unknown in the States but well-established abroad (our leads, Dujardin and Bejo), you’ve got actors who are relatively unknown in spite of some lengthy and outstanding resumes (Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, and Penelope Ann Miller), and then you’ve got actors who are outright modern legends (John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, and James Cromwell). Without exception, all of the actors in this cast are alarmingly skilled at making their characters’ thoughts known without any dialogue, and making it look easy. Top-notch.
(Side note: Bitsie Tulloch also appears in such a small role that I might normally not give it a mention. However, since her current status as a regular cast member on “Grimm” more or less makes her an honorary Portlander, I sort of feel obligated.)
Anyway, the film’s primary focus is of course on Dujardin, here playing the eponymous artist. Words honestly fail me. I knew deep down that I shouldn’t be sympathizing with a man so stupidly hell-bent on his own destruction, yet I never found myself apathetic about his fate. On one level, I suppose it’s because Dujardin injected this character with so much charm, energy, and talent at the outset that I wanted to see the character reach that high again. On another level, Dujardin does voluntarily auction off his belongings and let his unpaid butler go, so he clearly has at least some shred of personal responsibility.
All of that being said, I quite honestly thought that Peppy Miller was the far more interesting character. Here’s a young woman who’s just getting started in her career. She’s riding the current trend to become the hot new thing and she’s expected to act as such. And yet she still seems determined to somehow pay her respects to the old guard. She knows perfectly well who’s shoulders she’s standing on, and she seems resolved to repay the favor, but George’s own ego and the short memory spans of her bosses (“George Who? You mean that crusty old silent movie star?”) keep that from happening. What’s more, Peppy makes it a point to covertly preserve George’s legacy in any way she can, which could either be viewed as an act of reverence or of domination. It’s a very fascinating internal conflict, really.
Then there are the visuals. This film presents so many crisp shades of gray that absolutely nothing is lost for being shot in black and white. The editing is also wonderful, with several montages that are cleverly used to accelerate the story where necessary. Perhaps my favorite comes when we see George and Peppy gradually fall in love over multiple takes of the same ballroom scene. Even better, there are a few neat little sequences that involve refreshingly primitive — though nonetheless very effective — special effects. Oh, and let’s not forget the dance scenes, which are beautifully done in every way.
Alas, as much as I deeply respect this film, I do have quite a few nits to pick. For starters, though the score is generally a very effective and omnipresent way to convey emotion and tension, there are a few times when the score — and the movie itself, in point of fact — get way too melodramatic for its own good. The climax is the obvious example, but I think I’ll go with one of the movie’s sound sequences instead.
Yes, this film does have two sequences that feature sound effects and spoken dialogue. One of them is at the end, which very nicely illustrates George’s arc as a character. The other one, which comes somewhere near the start of the second act, not so much. It’s a scene in which every sound effect in the vicinity can be plainly heard, except that George — no matter how hard he tries — remains mute. The execution made it seem like a rather pretentious and overly blunt way to get the point across. The scene also turns out to be a dream sequence, so let’s add “very lazy” to the list as well.
As for the final complaint… well, it isn’t really a “nit” so much as it’s an “itch.” I kept trying not to scratch it throughout the entire movie, but there’s just no way to ignore it: There’s really nothing new here. I mean, yes, it’s a novelty in this day and age to have a silent film shot in black and white, and it’s a rare delight to see such a film be entertaining and easily followed.
However, the whole time I was sitting in the theater, I couldn’t help thinking that if this film was in color and had spoken dialogue, it would’ve been rather boring. It still would’ve been charming and well-acted, of course, but the story doesn’t really say or do anything thematically that hasn’t already been said and done to death. Hell, the subject matter of the narrative has already been covered umpteen different times from every possible angle in such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain, and All About Eve, just to name a few. Therefore, the film’s dirty little secret is that the faithfully ’20s presentation is ultimately little more than a gimmick. Though it’s a damn good gimmick, to be sure.
For whatever novelty it may lack in terms of story, there’s no denying that The Artist is a work of sheer genius in its execution. Not only is this a lovingly crafted and humorous tribute to the largely forgotten world of silent cinema, but it’s a brilliantly performed and visually dazzling film in its own right. Come see this film for the sheer filmmaking skill on display, but stay for Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.