WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: The advent of the talking picture brings about vastly contrasting fortunes for two stars of the silver screen: George Valentin, a feted actor who struggles to adapt to the new Hollywoodland landscape; and Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress whose idolisation of George competes with her ambition to get on in show business.
It’s 1927 and on the surface at least, life’s a bed of roses for matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with his faithful Jack Russell (Uggie), he has a string of hit films under his belt and ladies literally falling at his feet in the shape of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who stumbles into George and plants a kiss on his cheek, much to the delight of the press and displeasure of his wife Doris. Sparks fly when Peppy starts working alongside George at Kinograph Studios, the young starlet showing a keen interest in the handsome star; and as bullish studio boss Al Miller (John Goodman) demonstrates, there’s more excitement in the air – talkies.
George dismisses sound pictures as a fad, but two years later the picture is very different; Peppy has risen up the bill to become a big name in the talkies, while George refuses to adapt even when Kinograph stops making silent films. His self-financed feature Tears of Love opens on the same day as Peppy’s The Beauty Spot, with predictable results, and the film’s failure combined with the Wall Street crash results in financial and personal ruin. Even in hard times, George’s chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) remains loyal; however, it seems that nothing – not even the pooch – can rescue the fallen idol from his destructive pride.
It has been interesting to follow the reaction to The Artist evolve over the six months or so since its release, from warm praise of an unheralded novelty to the inevitable backlash over an overhyped, over-marketed commodity. And the curious thing is, both responses are completely valid. I’ll deal with the good bits first. The decision to make the film as a silent feature, complete with Ludovic Bource’s ripe, Bernard Hermann-referring score, is a triumphant case of form suiting function. The story is pure melodrama and the exaggerated emoting of the actors brings it across superbly, disarming modern viewers largely unaccustomed to having their heartstrings pulled in this fashion.
Michel Havanavicius directs expertly, bringing out the full impact of scenes such as the outtakes of George and Peppy losing focus whilst dancing, the full wit of George’s dream sequence, and the full drama of some of the later scenes (assuming it’s not clever CGI, the owners of some of those vintage cars must have had their hearts in their mouths). The cast – yes, including the dog – are all excellent, and it is worth emphasising how natural Dujardin and Bejo look in their roles; and not to give the game away, but the final reveal suggests the cause of George’s fear of the talkies – a real problem for many silent film stars.
All of which is fine if you approach The Artist as a wonderful discovery of a low-key project from an unknown European director. If, however, you go to see Oscar®-winning sensation The Artist from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, featuring Oscar®-winning hero Jean Dujardin, you might just get the feeling that the whole thing has been distinctly oversold. The fact is, the story is as simplistic as they come, and though my knowledge of silent films is extremely limited, I believe they are capable of a much greater level of narrative, emotional and psychological depth than this one. The characters develop in an entirely predictable manner, so you can forecast exactly where their career paths will lead.
Because we know where the film is heading (it never deviates from the path), the viewer is often a few steps ahead of it; and in occasional moments when the movie takes its time to proceed – mostly while George is wallowing in self-pity – it’s not surprising that a little boredom creeps in. Visually, there are few surprises either; in a silent film every image becomes a kind of visual metaphor*, but (as others have mentioned) some of the explicit metaphors in The Artist are obvious to the point of cliché – ascending or descending stairs, standing in the rain.
And on the subject of rain, despite its clever presentation The Artist can’t be considered particularly original, specifically owing many a debt to Singin’ in the Rain. The Artist acts as a negative image to Stanley Donen’s classic, using silent film techniques rather than modern Hollywood apparatus to explore the same subject; but despite some terrific hoofing from Dujardin and Bejo, the newer film can’t quite match the sheer joy of Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor at their all-singin’, all-dancin’, all Technicolor best. Neither does it have the bite or intelligence of Sunset Boulevard, a much darker meditation on what happened to the stars of the silent silver screen.
Nonetheless, viewed with as neutral an eye as possible, The Artist is still a treat. It assaults your emotions in unexpected ways and sends you out of the cinema with a song and a dance. Recommended, so long as you haven’t built up your expectations too much.