About twenty minutes into The Artist there is an ingenious scene in which the world comes alive with sound, while the about-to-become-a-has-been Hollywood star remains trapped in silence. This is where I thought, Aha! Here’s where the movie really takes off and starts coming to life!”
But no. George Valentin wakes up. It’s just a Dream Sequence. From there, The Artist returns to plodding along with its melodramatic story, not so much parodying the great silent Weepers or even giving tribute to them, but merely emulating them slavishly… a straightforward silent melodrama about silent melodramas told in the style of silent melodramas.
I liked The Artist, but did not love it. It has buckets of charm and does what it sets out to do with lots of verve and dedication. But the filmmakers are on record as calling this “an Art Movie,” and an Art Movie it is not. It is a purely commercial film telling a purely commercial story that just happens to be silent.
There is so much creative potential wasted in this movie that what we have here is kind of a tragedy — at least, a lost opportunity. The story is set in a Hollywood where silent pictures are giving way to talkies; why not make innovative use of sound to fashion a kind of hybrid movie style? A movie in which some people talked and some didn’t, in which some sounds were heard and others only hinted at with music — this would have resulted in a genuine Art Movie instead of the really quite ordinary picture that we got.
I can’t help, for example, but believe that Woody Allen could have accomplished much, much more with this same material.
So, yes, I am breaking one of my own cardinal rules and knocking a movie not because it fails at being what the filmmakers imagined (it doesn’t), but because they didn’t imagine enough.
It’s not enough to be Silent in a modern age of sound: that’s been done before. Mel Brooks did it thirty years ago. Sean Branney and Andrew Leman did it better with their Call of Cthulhu. The filmmakers have failed in the department of creativity, imagination, ambition and vision. The scene that I described earlier (and the ending, but by the time the end rolls around it’s too late) are the only moments where The Artist sets its sights on something higher.
There are other problems. The Artist bends film history in order to make its points. “Antiquation” is not what obliterated the established galaxy of Hollywood Stars that existed in the late twenties. Yes, the Grand Opera style of acting was passing away because words could get a point across so much more efficiently than emoting. A few actors could not learn how to tone down their style. More often, careers were killed by physical limitation: many of these stars did not have speaking voices that matched their on-screen personas. The sound and the image did not meld. Temptresses cannot squeak. Dynamic heroes cannot bleat. Some tried to take voice lessons to meet the needs of sound. As you might expect, this was not much help. The Artist could have benefitted from reality.
Some fortunate ones who had voices that perfectly matched the characters they played onscreen actually went on to greater successes in the sound era: Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields and the Barrymores for three. Buster Keaton had a good voice and was looking forward to meeting the challenges of sound. Keaton’s career was murdered by Other Forces: Bad Marriages and a drinking problem, yes, but more than that, he was sold downriver to another studio that a) did not know what to do with him and b) would not allow him the freedoms that he had always known to do the kind of work he did best. Some people just need to be left alone, and Keaton was one of them: but Hollywood had entered a period where The Studio was basically a domineering parent. They knew what was best for their children, the stars. Well-behaved children were rewarded, while the recalcitrant ones like Keaton were shunted aside.
Unfortunately, The Artist is also riddled with stinkingly sweet touches of “clever cuteness” that I do not appreciate, little subliminal hammerings-home of the story. At first it’s tolerable: the picture opens with a movie-within-the-movie in which Valentin is playing a spy who refuses to “talk.”
OK. But when Valentin, having hit upon misfortune, passes under a movie marquee that reads “Lonely Star,” or when the leading lady becomes his Unknown Benefactor and the screen is suddenly filled with a poster for one of her movies called “Guardian Angel” … this is just Too Cute for Words and the director needs to have the camera dropped on his fingers.
It’s all beautifully acted by an international cast that includes James Cromwell (always a welcome addition), John Goodman and — in a part that hardly warrants his status and must have been cut down dramatically from what was shot) — Malcolm McDowell. While Beronice Bejo is merely serviceable in the role of the heroine, Jean Dujardin in the title role of Valentin is flat-out remarkable.
In real life he looks nothing like the part that he’s playing here, and it’s not done with make-up. There was a real danger in casting this role with someone who might just have Pretended at being a Silent Star (that’s Bejo’s real problem)… instead, Dujardin inhabits the part to perfection. I believed in George Valentin, in the same way and for the same reasons that Gloria Swanson made me believe Norma Desmond in a much cleverer movie on the same subject, Sunset Boulevard. Valentin is one of the more challenging roles I’ve seen in modern movies: although the picture is a silent melodrama and needs to evoke what I’ve already referred to as grand opera silent style, it still has to be real. Dujardin did win the Best Actor Oscar for his work this picture and he certainly deserves it. In the end, it is his performance that makes the film worth watching.