A silent film star of romantic adventures named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) refuses to ride the wave of the future at the onset of talkies and instead watches his career and marriage disintegrate while an ingenue he helped land her first role named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) becomes the toast of Hollywood.
Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a film that never allows you to forget that you are watching a film. From the opening moment where we are in a film within a film to the closing dance number, The Artist is self-aware and as in love with itself as George Valentin is with his stardom. It’s also a lovingly mounted and pure homage to silent films…but it’s the type of silent film it aims to be that is the major problem and prevents it from rising above charming gimmick status.
When I think of silent films that have stood the test of time as works of art, my mind instantly goes to such groundbreaking and unique pieces like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Abel Gance’s Napoleon. These are films that stretched the confines of what was possible at the time and offered something completely new that transcended the fact that they were silent – and most importantly, they were visually astounding. Sadly, Hazanavicius isn’t so ambitious and pays homage instead to the broad fluffy little romantic comedies of the day while mining knowledge from Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born. The film has some genuinely funny and touching moments – the former involving a lovable dog and the later involving Valentin sinking into quicksand (oh the symbolism!) – but what’s the point? And what’s new?
These types of homage have been done before. Spielberg is especially good at modernizing the old-fashioned. Then of course there was Todd Haynes’ eerily perfect homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950’s that was his 2002 film Far From Heaven. But what made Far From Heaven so great and memorable was that Haynes used the homage as a vehicle to explore the social and sexual mores of the time period and he put a very modern and relatable commentary on the themes. Again, Hazanavicius’ film looks and feels just like a real silent film from the late 1920’s – but what’s the point? There’s no deeper subtext. Is it entertaining? Yes, to a point, but I’m not going to deny I did almost nod off a few times.
And this thing works itself up into such a tizzy as the leads are undoubtedly charming and pitch perfect in all their mugging for the camera. It almost won me over in the final moments when George and Peppy do their dance number that ends with them smiling and their arms outstretched, out of breath and begging for applause. In one of the film’s inspired uses of sound design, we can suddenly hear the two stars panting. And I thought – what a great way to end a silent film! But then you hear someone yell “Cut!” and the shot pulls back and lingers far too long on the clamor of the set, bashing it over our heads yet again that this was just a movie. I couldn’t wait for the credits to finally roll.
For all of its quaint charms and pleasing period details, I’ve never seen a film look more beautiful and work so hard for nothing.