THE STORY – In the 1920s, actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a bona fide matinee idol with many adoring fans. While working on his latest film, George finds himself falling in love with an ingenue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and, what’s more, it seems Peppy feels the same way. But George is reluctant to cheat on his wife with the beautiful young actress. The growing popularity of sound in movies further separates the potential lovers, as George’s career begins to fade while Peppy’s star rises.
THE CAST – Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian & John Goodman
THE TEAM – Michel Hazanavicius (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
“The Artist” was a cinematic sensation upon its release in 2011. The film had an eye-catching gimmick that appealed to general audiences, in that it was both silent and black-and-white, and a premise based around early Hollywood, which is catnip for cinephiles and industry insiders. It all culminated on Oscar night when the film took home a whopping five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.
All the makings of a bulletproof legacy, right? Well, not exactly. “The Artist” has struggled to endure in the decade-plus since the film’s release. Other 2011 releases have surpassed its reputation, and in some instances, cinephiles feel that these other releases deserved more awards. The debate over whether the film is overrated, properly rated, or even underrated has worn on, and in my attempt to arrive at a comprehensive rating, I will weigh the pros and cons.
Let’s start with the pros, of which there are plenty. For one, the sound design is masterful. It may seem like an odd thing to highlight in a largely silent film, but the lack of sound and the application of it in crucial instances is the thing that makes “The Artist” such a formal achievement. The dream sequence, in which fading silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) finds that he is unable to talk and is driven mad by the sound of ringing phones and barking dogs, is a sterling example of form and narrative working in tandem. It not only breaks the fourth wall for the viewer, but it articulates Valentin’s fear of being pulled out of a silent world in which he is successful and dropped into one of sound in which he’s considered a has-been.
It isn’t easy to get modern audiences to engage with a film that looks like it was made a century prior. Yet, that’s precisely what director Michel Hazanavicius manages to do. He’s able to communicate through humor that is simultaneously consistent with 1920s censors (the film is rated PG-13 for “crude gesture”) without being “square” or overly reliant on kitsch. There are several hilarious moments throughout the film, whether they be visual or via title cards, and even upon rewatch, there are little details and subtle cues that affirm Hazanavicius’s mastery of a format that has long since been retired.
The cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman does a lot in terms of selling the authenticity of the period, but just as important are the faces that are being placed in front of the camera. Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (who plays rising sensation Peppy Miller) masterfully recreate the exaggerated mannerisms of the original movie stars. Still, both of them know when to pull back and allow the subtlety of their performance to take over instead. Dujardin’s character is on a career free fall throughout most of “The Artist,” and seeing his Oscar-winning smile fade away in favor of a grimace is supremely effective. It never crosses the line into anachronistic “modern” acting, which could have easily been the case in less capable hands.
Let’s move over to cons. “The Artist” is a gimmicky film. A gimmick isn’t inherently bad, but it’s important to note that part of the reason it works is because of the aesthetic restrictions placed upon it. It’s a testament to Hazanavicius’s direction that the film avoids pastiche – it could have easily slipped into a bad rendition of a silent flick over the course of its 100-minute runtime. Another knock against “The Artist” is that it copies the plot of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) wholesale. While it’s true that the basic premise and story beats are glaringly similar (a popular actor falls out of style when “talkies” arrive and the younger actress he romances becomes a star), “The Artist” does manage to separate itself with a darker, more reflective tone. It ventures into places that the 1952 classic doesn’t and subsequently takes on a shape of its own.
I admit that the reverence “The Artist” has for the Hollywood of yesteryear, and the references it packs in, does sometimes border on trite. The breakfast scene, in which the breakdown of a marriage is communicated over minutes, is a “Citizen Kane” (1941) tribute that feels as though it’s pointing at itself in self-admiration. I was also one of the many people who sat up in my chair, baffled at the decision to score the entire final act of the film to Bernard Herrmann’s music from “Vertigo” (1958).
While I was not as incensed as the star of “Vertigo,” Kim Novak, I was so taken out of the film that I struggled to enjoy the dramatic payoff of a story that had otherwise been well executed. My stance on the music hasn’t changed, despite coming from what is surely a place of great reverence for Alfred Hitchcock, who was active during the period in which the film is set. (Maybe borrow from a score that isn’t blatantly anachronistic?) At least when the finale occurs, and Hazanavicius pays tribute to “Umberto D.” (1952), the characters and the circumstances mesh with the reference.
So, where do we ultimately stand? Well, “The Artist” is a brilliantly rendered and executed film that boasts some deceptively tricky performances at its core. In the same breath, however, it’s a film that can feel like a slave to its references, and its reliance on the iconography of others sometimes gets in the way of its effectiveness.