The Artist

Year of Release: 2011     Directed by Michel Hazanavicius.  Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell.

Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 silent film tries to be an homage to the age of silent film in the late twenties, as well as a thoughtful commentary on accepting change and moving on.  Unfortunately, it does not completely succeed.

It is 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a leading silent film star.  He is loved by his producers, the critics, and the audience.  The movie opens with a showing of his latest film.  Afterwards he walks onto the stage, accepting the laudations of the audience, and cavalierly playing with his costars, disregarding the annoyance he is causing one costar.  All of his antics are staged and performed with nearly the same versatility of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.  The audience receives his routine with delight.

After the show, as he leaves the theatre, a young admirer accidentally gets to meet Valentin.  The next day she lands the part of an extra in Valentin’s newest movie.  Gradually her roles become more and more prominent as the producers, critics, and audience take notice of Peppy Miller. (Bérénice Bejo)   Then in 1929, the studio decides to cease production of silent films, putting the older actors out of work, and embracing the new faces of the sound era.  Peppy signs a contract to become a leading star, but Valentin is out of a job, claiming that talkies are just a fad.  Peppy’s increasing success has grown into a full-fledged career, replacing actors such as Valentin.

Valentin is reluctant to admit that the changes are really happening.  He goes through denial, anger, and despair, searching for meaning as his career and his life fall apart.  It is at this point that the film falters by dwelling for too long on Valentin’s ruin, and overemphasizing the point.  By the time the ending arrives, it is overdue and almost unbelievable due to the disproportional emphasis on the hard times that Valentin has endured.  The overlong second act also downplays the seriousness of Valentin’s pride, suggesting the vice that nearly destroyed him was not a big deal.  (HT Jeffrey Overstreet)

Valentin’s sufferings are in some part caused by his own pride.  He cannot accept that he needs to change or that he may need help to change.  At this point there are echoes of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard.  In keeping with the overall upbeat nature of the film, Valentin’s arrogance is never portrayed to equal Norma’s arrogance, and consequently The Artist does not take the dark turn that Sunset Boulevard takes.  Change can be difficult to accept, but it can help one grow and improve their art, which Valentin refuses to do, until he spontaneously changes his mind.  The nature of the changes to cinema and to Valentin’s career ultimately recalls Singin’ in the Rain and the positive career turn that Gene Kelly has in that film.

The use of sound effects is amazing.  A dream sequence after Valentin first hears of talking pictures makes brilliant use of sound effects.  Other important moments are heightened by sounds and occasionally by dialogue.

Unfortunately, the film did not deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  While it was good, it was not a best picture quality film.  Part of the reason for this, is the film teeters too long between tragedy and comedy, unsure whether it is a silent Sunset Boulevard or a silent Singin’ in the Rain.  Another reason is that Dujardin’s feats are not even close to the level of the feats of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Since The Artist is a silent film, it was odd that it was more in the style of ’50’s movies such as Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain rather than early silent films such as The General and City Lights.  Even the score is a trite imitation of Bernard Herrmann scores.

While there is nothing particularly new about The Artist, the presentation is mostly enjoyable to watch.  The stunts and the performances do not  rival those of the best silent films stars, but they are still fun.  Aspects of the story have been done before in many classic films.  In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin used sound effects in a similar manner to comment on the move into the new age of sound and machinery.  However, The Artist shows that silent film is still a powerful art form that can express themes as well as talking pictures.  It is unfortunate that it did not make better use of its opportunity.


Content Advisory: Brief crude gesture, mature themes including suicide contemplation, infidelity, and alcoholism.                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: C+


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