Not having grown up watching many silent films, it didn’t occurr to me until watching The Artist how international silents were and could be, uniting film audiences around the globe who nowadays may hesitate to see a movie just because it is in a language (or even an accent or dialect) with which they are unfamiliar. In this case, we have a silent movie made by a French director (Michel Hazanavicus) with two French leads (Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo), alongside familiar faces from America and Britain (John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm MacDowell, Penelope Ann Miller, dozens of others), telling the most Hollywood of stories, and flirtatious starlets are the only ones batting an eyelash.
Think of the possibilities: take any actor of any language and pair them with any other actor of any other language, because we don’t really watch movies specifically to see Americans, or Brits, or the French, or Indians, or South Africans. We watch movies to see stars.
All the more reason why everyone was so afraid when Hollywood transitioned from silent to sound in the 1930s. Barriers didn’t come down; instead, they suddenly and irrevocably went up. Change is always hard, and this change was so all-encompassing that it broke entire careers and corporations overnight.
Such is the case for silent screen matinee idol George Valentin (Dujardin), whose bright star quickly burns out when his studio switches to all-talkies. Playing parallel to his fall is the rapid rise of young Peppy Miller (Bejo), with whom George has a mentoring friendship/chaste romance/circumstantial rivalry. The story plays as an almost direct analogue to Singin’ in the Rain – the plot may be somewhat similar but, fittingly in its telling, The Artist takes the “silent” route of melodrama to Rain’s “talky” route of song-and-dance (though there is a bit of that here as well).
Which isn’t to say that The Artist is a sad movie – it’s actually one of the most joyous and exuberant movies I’ve seen in years, not least of all simply because the acting and directing style of silent movies is so much “bigger” than what we’ve become accustomed to. It has to be, for all the obvious reasons. Bejo and especially Dujardin are both spectacular actors, flawlessly performing the near-impossible feat of conveying mountains of emotion and dialogue, silently, all the while never breaking from silent movie style.
All told, The Artist is definitely a fun, cute, and very sweet movie, and certainly one of the most audacious that you are likely to have seen all year. But still, I couldn’t shake the feeling in the end that it was missing…something. Here we have a silent movie about the end of silent movies, that is to say we are not meant to be watching the story of these two people, but a movie about them – one which we are presumably viewing as an artifact of that era, of perhaps even as part of that era’s audience itself. But so what? What does that say about us, about them? About then, about now? About stories, about movies? I may just be thinking too hard about it, but I can’t help but feel that the makers of The Artist were having so much fun making it that they completely forgot to tell this one last level of story. This, for me, ultimately downgrades The Artist from greatness to mere curiosity and, unfortunately, one rather weightless (albeit fun) gimmick of a movie.
Posted on January 10, 2012, in Film Review and tagged Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Michel Hazanavicius, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, The Artist. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.