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dripping with untold meaning (review: the artist)

Sunday, 26 February 2012
Bejo poses as a silent film starlet in The Artist.

The Artist is clever and charming, even to the point of its own detriment.

Rating: 7.5/10 

I recently saw The Artist with my beau at Rialto Cinemas Cerrito, an eat-in theatre filled with an array of dining chairs, side tables, sofa seats, easy chairs, and low coffee tables stacked in amphitheater fashion. Their deceptively ordinary-looking concession stand in the entry sells all the usual fare, but the Rialto Cerrito also offers bottles of wine and beer on tap (right next to the soda fountain!), and a stack of menus sits on the countertop, from which viewers can order hot meals from the upstairs kitchen. (The waiters then walk through the seat arrangements during the show and deliver your order to you with a very audible “Enjoy your meal!” – a brief but noticeable departure from the regular cinematic experience.)

As we struggled to find a seat, toting our drinks awkwardly around the theatre, I wished we’d come a bit earlier to enjoy the more widely social aspect of the dine-in experience. We found a small table with two higher chairs off to the right side of the screen, settled down, and placed our order number on the table just as the lights dimmed.

The Artist tells the tale of Peppy (yes, you read that correctly) Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an aspiring Hollywood actress in the late 1920s whose chance encounter with silent film superstar George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) catapults her into talkies fame, even as George suffers a career crash at the hands of Hollywood’s irreversible transition into sound.

Peppy with George's dog Uggie.
Peppy with George’s dog, Uggie.

The film is mostly well-cast, stocked with actors whose looks really might have gotten them parts back in the day  – after all, standards of beauty do change – making John Goodman all the more delightfully and surprisingly convincing as the punchy director Al Zimmer. But the lovely Bejo (also the wife of director Michael Hazanavicius) is conspicuously gangly, bony-faced, and quirkily nostril-flaring, and since the film hinges on her classic ‘star looks,’ her purely millenial, rather distinctly European beauty (not to mention her anachronistic hand and facial gestures) feels out of both place and time.

The success of the film and the reason for its wide acclaim is plain: it is charming and clever enough to entertain modern audiences despite its silence, and at times, it’s also beautifully, if misleadingly, shot. Hazanavicius seems unable to decide if he’s making a film that looks like it’s from the twenties or one that’s simply about them; certain angles and modes of parallel editing seem to belong to the time of the film, but Hazanavicius uses the close-up more often to comic than to melodramatic effect, and the scenes are short and fast like most movies of today to accommodate this tone.

Most of the jokes in The Artist circle around visual-aural conflicts (we see Peppy’s radio interview but can’t hear it, we watch the dog barking bloody murder), though it is also laden with easy-to-reach ‘Easter eggs’ – embedded details for the viewer to find in the visual background that ‘ironically,’ heavy-handedly tell us that Peppy is ‘A Guardian Angel’  (on a film poster) or that an ‘Emergency’ is waiting in the wings (in an exit sign).

One of the richest moments I experienced watching the film occurred mainly because of the context in which I happened to see it. As The Artist transitions into a sounding world towards its close, George sets his highball glass on his dressing bureau one day (during an otherwise completely quiet scene) and it hits the wooden surface audibly. Because we were in a dine-in cinema, this first intrusion of diegetic sound worked quite stunningly. Many in the audience looked around, checking to see if someone had set a heavy beer glass down near them. Then we looked back up at the screen to see the character’s incredulous face, getting the joke just as he began to test other objects in the room for audible effects.

Most of the film’s cleverness, though, feels just a little too smugly self-satisfied, and even a bit belatedly postmodern. We are supposed to laugh at the sudden intrusion of sound into a world we’ve been asked to believe as always having had sound – just sound the medium of the film hasn’t conveyed to us. By this logic, then, shouldn’t the whole film have transitioned into sound at the moment of the first talkie? And why, after all, should the first popular silent movie in eight decades be set in the time period of silent film, and take as its topic the production and fall of the silent film industry, when it could have been set in 2011, or 1987, or even 1598? Perhaps most strangely, as David Denby points out in The New Yorker, for all the doting on silent cinema this film performs,

… the silent movies we see [with]in The Artist all look like trivial, japish romps… why set one’s ambition’s so low?  [i]

I think the answer is, quite simply, for greater appeal. This is all fine and good, but there are other ways to widen appeal than by taking the easy way out. The trick of The Artist is to cradle its viewers in that sweet and comfortable spot of collapsed history that lies between an ironic, self-satisfied cleverness about the present and a rich, nostalgic indulgence in an imagined past.

Of course, this is precisely what makes it an Oscar favorite for tonight. Hovering between distancing irony and sappy sentimentality, The Artist is just challenging enough to be ‘real cinema,’ but not so avant-garde that it might alienate viewers or make the Academy look like a bunch of snobs (sorry, Tree of Life, but this is the real reason you’re out of the running). If the film were really asking “Can a great silent film that reaches a popular audience be made in 2011?” I’d be thrilled. Instead, it seems to be asking, “Can a silent film about silent films dripping in ironic references to the silent film era garner a profit and then sweep the Oscars?” (No surprise, then, that the unsavory producer and Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein was all over it from the start…)

Though the cast as a whole is solid, Jean Dujardin is the one really talented silent actor in the film, and he might actually deserve the Best Actor Award tonight (I still haven’t seen all of the nominees). His movements are expressive in a manner appropriate to the art, whereas the rest of the actors seem to be engaging in an over-the-top physicality more reminiscent of Broadway (or, indeed, Glee) than silent pictures. But that’s just another potential ‘problem’ that The Artist is ready to melt away with more layers of ‘postmodern’ posturing: of course the other actors aren’t great silent picture actors, because they represent ‘real people’ or actors in talking pictures, once again creating a confusion between the various and meaningless meta-levels of Hazanavicius’ invention.

The final scene.
The film’s final scene.

After a long, drawn-out separation and a few brushes with death for George, Peppy and her man finally end up together. The Artist concludes with a scene of the two filming a dance sequence, suggesting that the Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers formula will act as a solution for George’s failing career and preserve the happiness of their relationship. In the last moments, we finally hear George speak – and it’s in a thick accent! – apparently explaining away the whole richness of the plot, and placing far too much pressure on this clever little joke. (On top of this, 21st-century viewers that we are, we feel perversely robbed not to hear Bejo speak, knowing she would have the exact same ‘problem,’ though she’s been represented to us, just as George has, as an American througout the story.)

Still, it’s a visually rich conclusion to a very enjoyable film, and in its sweet and simple way, like a trifle after dinner, it leaves the viewer satisfied, if only for a moment. Melena Ryzik of The New York Times claims that The Artist and tonight’s ‘ideal’ Oscar host Billy Crystal have something in common because they hit precisely the same range of not-too-biting comedy:

… the Academy Awards are like a communal version of the in-jokes and warm fuzzies you get watching home movies. Those people from The Artist really are on to something.  [ii]

I’ve been wishing for the past few years that something more light and comic, something other than special effects, benevolently racist melodramas, and sob stories about bruised American masculinity (boxers, fighters) would become a real contender for Best Picture. As Kenneth Turan rightly points out in his otherwise too-apologetic review of The Artist for the Los Angeles Times, 

… today’s Oscar voters frequently skirt the parallel danger of disregarding sophisticated and intelligent entertainments, considering them to be not as worthy of the best picture Oscar as more ostentatious, pretentious fare.  [iii]

So maybe I should be gladder that The Artist is gunning for the top tonight. It’s just that as the first blockbuster silent film in eighty years, it had the chance to take real artistic risks, and it seems to have exchanged these opportunities for Oscar nominations. Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about it is that it’s enjoyable, it’s pretty, and it’s inoffensive. And I’ll tell you one thing –  I’d much rather The Artist sweep the awards tonight than The Help (see review).

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