Don’t let the name bother you–The Artist is not a complex work, and you need not be a film expert in order to appreciate it. A French, silent, monochrome production might or might not have been the most obvious choice to win the “Best Picture” Academy Award, but director Michel Hazanavicius and an excellent cast tell a classic if occasionally simplistic story of a cinema legend adapting to a bold and unfamiliar time.
The film begins, in a near-4:3 aspect ratio, with a brief scene of a man being electrically tortured. Featuring George Valentin, a silent-movie actor at the top of his game, this startling opening is an in-universe movie that depicts Valentin’s character being tortured by his captors for information. The adventurous hero and his adorable dog instead escape their confines as the movie-within-a-movie’s audience cheers. The Artist, generally lacking audible dialogue, employs music ranging from action-movie themes to jazz in order to help establish the story’s mood from point to point. Valentin is just the sort of performer whose company I could see myself enjoying: he’s relaxed, he’s jovial, and he’s not above acting legitimately silly, such as when performing tricks with his pooch on stage, which further delights an already enthralled crowd.
His antics with one of his co-stars result in her suddenly flipping him off, which is hilarious for a movie that otherwise has barely any profanity and plays what little there is for shock. Most of this woman’s lines aren’t captioned, but her anger shows clearly in all she does. This is the kind of movie where body language is critical–see also Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, which incidentally was released in the same year that this movie is initially set in–and the actors and actresses realize this, doing a great job with their emotive performances.
Hot off the release of the film A Russian Affair, our photogenic hero is interviewed in the midst of a crowd of screaming fans. In the very definition of a “happy accident,” a young woman drops one of her belongings and accidentally bumps into George himself while trying to retrive it. She’s understandably nervous, but George the gentleman plays all of this as though it were a normal occurrence. (He gets a peck on the cheek for his behavior.) He acts like it’s all part of the show, and the news crew quickly grows to love him and his new friend. While this event becomes the talk of society, the laid-back performer relaxes at home as his discouraging wife reads Variety and expresses her anxiety over his behavior. The dog is as cute as ever and is quite well trained, which becomes something of an issue when George seems to give more attention to his pet than to his spouse.
Peppy Miller, the girl who had a chance encounter with George Valentin, is also reading Variety on a trolley as she heads for auditions at the Kinograph Motion Picture Company. People young and old have come out for their own opportunities, and Miss “I-Kissed-George-Valentin” excitedly shows off the news article featuring her. Peppy, who lives up to her name, proves herself quite capable of dancing on request. The handsome George Valentin is a seemingly ideal star who brightens the day of everyone he comes across, but he doesn’t seem very intentional about maintaining and improving his marriage. He wants to apologize to his wife by having his driver Clifton pick up something from a jewelry store, but this token effort is better than nothing.
In any case, George–whose public silliness has overshadowed the actual press for his movie–sees a girl’s legs dancing behind a rising backdrop. He begins dancing with someone who cannot see him, and she dances along and waits for him to continue. Naturally the other dancer is Peppy, and her face when she sees whom she’s been dancing with is absolutely brilliant. She looks lovely in her dress, but her unwitting co-star’s superior immediately fires her, making her and others as dejected as the background music is. This doesn’t last long, however; ever the gentleman, Valentin refuses to let Miller leave, and his boss acquiesces. All of these actions are rather dramatic, which can be useful for the audience’s sake given this film’s self-imposed limitations, but some of the story’s late-stage turns can feel forced or premature.
Several takes of a dance scene from the forthcoming movie A German Affair are shown, which I imagine to have been a pain to do over and over, even as they paid off; George becomes increasingly frustrated, which begins to affect Peppy’s mood as well as his. Without giving away specifics, her secret feelings for George soon become evident to the real-life audience. The lady has instant chemistry with Valentin, who establishes himself as her mentor of sorts. On her face he marks a beauty spot, which usually doesn’t appeal to me but is oddly complementary in this case. Through a montage, Peppy’s roles gradually increase in importance from bit parts to star performances, and the story continues into 1929. Eventually, while watching a test for an early sound production of Romeo & Juliet–still quiet to our ears–George laughs through the whole thing, disliking the very concept. He’s become a star by mastering the previous limitations of his medium, and he’s not about to lay his skills down.
(Mild spoilers follow.)
The film’s awareness of its own design aesthetics reaches its potential in a dream sequence where George picks up his drinking glass and other items and places them down again. They make sound. This is repeated several times to address his disbelief, and potentially that of the watching audience, even as he himself doesn’t speak. A woman conspicuously laughs at him, followed by many, and this and other scenes in the movie serve as an overt frame for George’s silent career being left in the dust. This is capped off by a leaf hitting the ground and making an explosive noise on contact.
(Spoilers end here.)
George’s tendency to influence surrounding people’s moods becomes a drawback when his upset mood spreads to Clifton. In a sad day for both, Kinograph Studios has stopped all work on silent productions to focus exclusively on voiced films. George barges into an office where the same boss who accepted his star’s new leading lady now bends to the will of a mass audience. He has his own wishes, as he tells George, but “the public is never wrong.” Regardless, Peppy enthusiastically wishes to do another movie together.
To his own detriment, the man who in his own eyes can do no wrong begins producing and directing his own works, which are soon overwhelmed by sound films, including one Peppy is starring in: “Beauty Spot.” Both films come out toward the end of October 1929; the timing becomes relevant. Peppy, meanwhile, excels in her roles as George’s wife gives him those all-important words:
“We have to talk.”
The line is unpleasant in its relational context, but interpreted in the bigger picture of George’s declining career, it takes on a subtler meaning–George has to relearn how to communicate with his wife and his audience, and at this point both endeavors are failing. The movie’s plans for this relational subplot are blatant, and the resolution feels not only predictable but escapist. At another place and time, Peppy is promoting her own film, and her interviewer is as much in her thrall as many individuals used to be for Valentin; Miller makes note of the silent era’s own potential excesses and speaks of how audiences have grown tired of actors “mugging at the camera to be understood.” Unknown to her, her idol happens to be listening in on her conversation, making her very upset at whom she’s offended. Perhaps to make up for this, Peppy attends the otherwise sparse opening of George’s new film. It contains more blatant symbolism for his failing silent career, and George can hardly bear to sit through his own work, which Peppy herself loves. Her own movie is performing extremely well, lining moviegoers into the streets.
As George’s personality and quality of life decline, along with likely his health due to his drug use, his humanity shows through in moments such as tipping a pawnbroker after receiving a paltry sum in exchange for a suit. Valentin auctions off more of his cherished household items, including a large portrait of himself, and it’s tragic to see the auction house nearly empty. Audiences have moved on. The year is now 1932, and George is again in a bar, burning his life away. Clifton and Peppy demonstrate their own gracious kindnesses. The latter has a new picture, “Guardian Angel”–with aforementioned exceptions, the movie is not really one for subtlety. All three of these characters remain sympathetic throughout the film, but George’s treatment of himself and others progressively become less likeable as the story’s mood approaches its nadir.
Some time later, Peppy finds herself in George’s original position of having to stick up for a companion. She seems to be one of the most mature people in all of The Artist, and her determination to allow Valentin–whether despite his issues or because of them–to be involved with her work is admirable and noteworthy, giving George a chance to start from the bottom up all over again. It’s a compelling setup, but little is done with it; after some wistful moments showcasing George’s earlier belongings and an extended conversation with a cop that isn’t dubbed for the benefit of the audience, the film seems to rush headlong toward an overly dramatic climax.
If you were expecting a slow and steady reverse mentor-student relationship to develop between Miller and Valentin, you won’t get much of one: the conclusion essentially takes an easy way out. It does the pacing no favors, but it’s not bad enough to compromise the established quality of the story or its characters–these people start interesting and stay interesting even if they’re sometimes difficult to root for. Furthermore, there is one moment at the story’s most depressing turn where the movie takes advantage of its own mechanics in order to manipulate the audience. It’s genius, and from a technical production standpoint, the remainder of the story ends on its own twist that is simply too delicious to spoil. The film wraps up with more than enough successes to make up for its few stumbles.
Conclusion: An entertaining story that takes one too many shortcuts.
Measured on its own terms instead of in comparison to the cinema of decades ago, The Artist is at times a delightfully sedate comedy and at others a remarkably unsettling drama, with a lack of complexity that feels somewhat one-dimensional but otherwise skillfully executed. George doesn’t always feel like the “hero” or protagonist of what was originally his story, since a number of his direst challenges are irrational and self-inflicted. The supporting characters aren’t particularly deep, but they establish themselves well in their first impressions.
The film’s brevity is its own opponent, but the abrupt ending still manages to be exciting. Taken as what it is, the final scene does in its own way give the story a reasonable amount of closure while inviting curiosity of what will happen next. Though too much is left to the audience’s imagination in my view–it would have been neat and likely very funny to see the film’s early mentor-student relationship turned more thoroughly on its head–what’s left is at least somewhat fulfilling and is surely worth a look. As far as the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees go, I was more satisfied with how The Help from the same year turned out, but viewers who are feeling nostalgic for the earlier days of film would do well to give The Artist their attention. They’ll love the music!
(This review is dedicated to a friend of mine who encouraged me to try this film. Also, the film-clutching scene was heartwarming, disregarding the events that led up to it.)
Image credits (property of The Weinstein Company et al.)
This post was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.