The Artist (2011)

Dir. Michael Hazanavicius. Starring Uggie, Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo.

At the end of The Artist, George Valentin (Dujardin) has made a new career for himself as, more or less, Peppy Miller’s (Bejo) sidekick. In a tap number, the two of them bounce and smile and do all sorts of other generic tap things. (Call me a Philistine, but The Shape of Water did that scene better.) And then, in a movie which made its entire raison d’être its silence, the sound returns. Studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shouts his delight with the take, and we hear his glowing review, and the sounds of the crew bustling about, and the camera pans back, and it’s the ’30s and everyone is making sound pictures and the world is just right. The Artist is about the evolution of George Valentin from thoughtless playboy star to seasoned veteran supporting actor, who knows his place in the world must change. This evolution begins as silent pictures reach their height in 1927 (I wouldn’t argue with you if you called Sunrise the finest of the silent movies), goes through a long period in which Valentin refuses to adjust to talkies, and finally ends after a cathartic interaction with Peppy, who has, as we’ve learned, always cared about George, and who wants to get him back on his feet again so he can audibly tap dance back into our hearts. In other words, George becomes a real person once movies with sound are dominant, only growing once the silent movies are gone. By connecting the two, Hazanavicius has mortally wounded his own movie: why the heck would you make a silent movie about outgrowing silent movies? The answer is fairly clear: you don’t actually care about silent movies. The movie proves this to be true over and over again, and what it seems not to understand (over and over again) is that events and elements with corollaries outside the picture have resonances and significations outside the picture as well. I thought it was a little unfair that Nine was judged harshly for not being as good as 8 ½ when it was clear that Nine had ambitions separate from those of its illustrious forbear. I have no such reservations about The Artist. 

From the first, when we watch George’s face light up once he hears the applause that we, of course, can’t hear, we know that Hazanavicius views this as a gimmick. Silence is a gag in this movie and not a tool to advance, I dunno, plot or characterization or thematic elements. Other directors have used the gimmick since silent pictures went out of style, but Mel Brooks, for example, at least realized it was a gimmick. The fact that Marcel Marceau is the only one who speaks in Silent Movie is witty, and contains more humor than the whole of The Artist does; calling attention to the silence in one’s movie as if the audience couldn’t tell is condescending to the people watching and, worse still, condescending to the roots of cinema itself. The Valentin-Miller romance is reminiscent of the Gilbert-Garbo pairing that sent the lady through the roof all over again and sent the man to his ruin. John Gilbert deserves better than this hamfisted tribute, one which says “I” in its speech much more often than “they.” The same useless arrogance is especially pronounced in the co-opting of Bernard Herrmann’s “Scene d’Amour” from the score of Vertigo for a scene where Peppy tries reach George before he can kill himself. The folks behind The Artist paid for the rights to the music, and there’s obviously nothing criminal about it. (Whether or not they’d seen Vertigo and knew that it was, in fact, made with sound is unanswerable.) But using it because the music is tense is sort of like that scene from The Little Mermaid where Ariel sees a fork in its context for the first time. Having been trained to believe that it’s for combing hair (“a dinglehopper!”), she begins to vigorously brush her hair in front of everyone at the table, and the end result is, depending on your point of view, either hilarious or mortifying. The Artist has a noxious perspective of history. It’s something you can buy and rearrange to your liking, without considering original implications and meanings, without respecting the beauty which existed, without the humility to realize that someone might have done it better than you can do.

Perhaps this perspective is why the plot of the movie is ridiculous and helplessly old-fashioned. If it had been about Peppy, I think this might have gone somewhere. A beautiful young woman enters a fabulous career as an actress, turning the smallest shard of luck—dropping her autograph book at a red carpet and literally bumping into a major star—into the break she needs to get into showbiz. This is the story told in real life by dozens of actresses who worked themselves into viable stars, as Peppy rises from extra to bit part to supporting role to, eventually, it girl. However, just like it’s assumed that a story about people of color needs a white person to draw in audiences, it’s assumed that The Artist needs a man to draw in audiences to this story about a woman. Thus we are forced to endure George, who falls out of the limelight when he actively chooses not to perform in movies with sound. This is not the story of Raymond Griffith, who literally could not speak above a whisper and so was out of a job when talkies came. This is not the story of Karl Dane, whose thick accent torpedoed the career of a promising seriocomic actor who would, urged on by neglect and bankruptcy, commit suicide. This is the story of a guy who just decides he’s better than the system, tries to overcome it with a silent movie of his own making, fails enormously, and then sits around feeling sorry for himself. He is not alone in this, for the filmmakers also feel sorry for him and thus so too does Peppy. This is an exquisite male fantasy: a younger woman with fame and money and charm decides that despite all of your faults, you are the man she wants. She characterizes her age-appropriate dates as arm candy, buys up the relics of George’s film career, employs George’s loyal valet Clifton (James Cromwell) after George’s pride kicks in. (It takes a year, of course, to realize that he hasn’t paid his butler, but look, George cares about doing right by others!) She is either a giant star or she is giving her life to ensure that a guy who drew a mole on her five years ago is taken care of, and if anything else actually matters, it’s a total mystery. Chalk up another movie in which women don’t even speak to one another, in which all of them are viewed through the prism of the male centerpiece. George is married to a nondescript woman (Penelope Ann Miller) who ultimately leaves him when times get tough. George’s co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle), is a comic foil who is frustrated that the dog (Uggie) gets more time taking curtain calls than she does. None of the women in this movie have the slightest veneer of personality, and barely exist except as people George interacts with. (It’s interesting that Constance appears in a screen test and that Peppy appears quite often as the face on movie posters; it’s the closest they get to not being George’s feminine foils.)

The best part of the movie, perhaps the single biggest reason this movie won Best Picture, is Uggie. Uggie is at least as good an actor as anyone else in the cast, and he has the advantage of being cute as a button. Like Asta, another scene-stealing terrier, you laugh when he shows up and can’t help but like him. Goodness knows I would have rooted for George to immolate dismally in an ocean of celluloid (which, in another carelessly anachronistic touch, burns really slowly in this movie.) But Uggie, alas, does not get to engage in nearly as much mischief as Asta did. It’s impossible to imagine him toppling a cabinet or carrying around a dinosaur bone like his spiritual ancestor. Uggie, by my reckoning, is the only real closely missed opportunity for this movie, the filmic version of blindfolded darts.

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