by Sam Juliano
“If ‘The Artist’ revels in gimmickry and occasionally oversells its charm, it also understands the deep and durable fascination of the art it embraces…”
-A.O. Scott, The New York Times
After Michel Hazanavicius’s romantic homage to silent cinema, The Artist charmed audiences at Cannes, and won dozens of critical accolades from numerous film critical organizations, it went one to win the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. From coast to coast (New York and Los Angeles) to the other side of the pond (London and Paris) The Artist captivated scribes and dominated like no other film had done for many years. In a year when Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation released to spectacular reviews, the vast majority of critics stood solidly by the black and white French charmer derided by it’s few detractors as “lightweight.” Oscar voters were so smitten that they also followed the Cannes jury’s lead by awarding Jean Dujardin the Best Actor prize. He was the first French thespian in history to win that honor. But there were even more ‘firsts': The Artist was the first French film to win the Best Picture Oscar, it was the first completely black and white film to win since The Apartment in 1960, and the firs silent film to win since Wings in 1927. In addition, it was the most honored film by the Ceasars in French history and it took Britain by storm, dominating the London Film Critics Awards and the BAFTAs.
Yet despite all the hoopla and adoration the film’s seemingly invincible reputation came under fire from a galvanized blogging community, some of whom looked down their nose at the dearth of narrative complexity, and the film’s perceived gimmicky construction. When the overwhelming numbers were thrown back in their faces -a tactic this writer has never been able to resist – several shot back with a theory that critics weren’t voicing their convictions as much as jumping on a bandwagon. Still some others half-heartedly defended the film, extolling its virtues while pulling back from proclaiming it one of the very best films of the year.
The Artist is set in 1927, shortly before the silent cinema was about to tank and yield to the coming talkies. Most film historians attribute the end of an era to the popularity of The Jazz Singer, but there were a number of factors that came into play. A handsome, if hammy matinee idol named George Valentin is at the peak of his career in both popularity and marketability, a la Valentino, Chaplin or Fairbanks. At the premiere of his latest film, an ambitious starlet named Peppy Miller accidentally falls into his arms on the red carpet, and is catapulted into stardom when the paparazzi photos make all the Hollywood tabloids. The film then brings together the plot and character construction of Singin in the Rain and A Star is Born, with an exhilarating romance eventually diminished by Peppy’s rising star, and George’s slide. He hears voices and even his trustworthy Jack Russell terrier, Uggie starts barking in seemingly all-knowing mode. The studio then puts the clamps on silent film production to allow for the ushering in of the sound era. Painted into a corner George withdraws his savings in 1929 to fund a comeback, thinking that talkies are a fad sure to fizzle out. But he is foiled by two developments: first his protege’s film is a huge hit, and two, the stock market crashes. The result is that by 1931 he is bankrupt. His wife leaves him, and he becomes old news with his fans. Predictably he hits the bottle and is deserted by all except his ever-faithful Uggie and his loyal chauffeur Clifton, who is eventually dismissed. He angrily trashes the prints of all his earlier films and sets a match to them, recalling the room destruction in Citizen Kane. He is nearly killed in the fire by is saved by his sole remaining friend and kindred spirit Uggie, his exceedingly talented dog, who dashes down the street to attract the attention of a policemen in one of the film’s most extraordinary sequences. Typically, Hazanavicius toasts the silent era propensity for small performing dogs of Uggie’s kind.
Valentin fails to grasp at this point -and again the parallel to A Star is Born is persuasive- that in her heart Peggy still loves him, and she taps upon the spirit of her new film Guardian Angel to rally behind him. At this point the director and the film’s superlative Oscar winning composer Ludovic Bource daringly opt to weave in the melancholy love theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the film’s thematic climax. Though I applaud the decision, some viewers complained that it took you from The Artist to the 1958 cinematic masterpiece. Herrmann’s evocative and elegiac music by any barometer of measurement can bring another layer of meaning to the drama it underlines, and it was extraordinarily effective in transcribing a certain sense of hopelessness that was also a thematic concern of Hitchcock’s film. The film ends on a deliriously celebratory note, one infused with classical romanticism and the long-shot resolution of seemingly impossible circumstances.
Throughout its running time The Artist explores the theme of change brought on by technological advancement, and the poorer state of art because of compromise. No doubt the director modeled some his ideas on classic Hollywood works like Sunset Boulevard with one of the cinema’s most iconic characters in the crusty Norma Desmond who remains resistant till the end -she opines: We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!, and the obsolete child star Baby Jane Hudson, played by Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, who becomes eventually develops Norma Desmond-like dementia with a touch of depravity to boot. Unavoidable change, and the way it alters lives can be seen in transitions from one form to the other as in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, in which a beloved institution, an aging movie house is razed because of suffocating competition from home video.
The Artist was shot in a satiny moonlight glow by Guillame Schiffman, and the results produce an exquisite black and white tapestry that wonderfully replicates the silent era. The cars, the clothes, the buildings, the furniture are all impressively negotiated. All things considered this is one of the most gorgeous looking films in years.
Beginning in 1984 and ending with the advent of the silent era, films were fashioned to tell a story through a sequence of images and sound that produce movement. These films contained no dialogue, often using comedic gestures and title cards to portray messages to the audience. But the most important park of the silent film was the score and Bource’s work in The Artist is extraordinary. In turns jaunty and serene, melancholy and celebratory, the mood turns darker in the later passages when the lead character succumbs to despair. The expansive orchestral overture is purely Golden Age in its grandeur, and one that recalls Korngold, Steiner and Newman both in occasional bombast and melodic felicity. Yet Bource, who incredibly had no musical training in composition superbly captures the feel of Hollywood in the 20’s, and incorporates Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” Red Nichols’ “Imagination” and especially “Pennies From Heaven” which in included in its entirety. The music throughout defines the characters. For example, the playful piano and marimba and a walking bass line suggest the happy-go-lucky nature of George. the same motif is used later with a darker alteration to reflect the story’s turn. The most beautiful piece of all is “Comme Une Rose e de Larmes”, which underlines the montage of Valentin’s film reception, but this is one of the very few recent scores that rarely stumbles. The fact that is such an excellent stand alone needs no further embellishment. The controversial use of the aforementioned Herrmann passage from Vertigo injects the film with yet another layer of emotional complexity.
As George, Cannes and Oscar winner Dujardin demonstrates he’s a master of physical comedy (uncanny timing and control of body language) whose performance still exudes the roller coaster ride of the human experience, and every emotion he projects comes off as real and deeply affecting. he carries so much of this film on his shoulders and he delivers the goods in expressionistic silent era mode, with a fabulous smile to boot. The elegant and beautiful -such incandescent eyes- Berenice Bejo, who is actually the director’s wife gives an uninhibited and winning turn as the force of goodness that ultimately saves George from self-destruction. As cigar-chomping movie mogul Al Zimmer, the character actor John Goodman is delightfully bombastic, and James Cromwell is utterly delightful as the ever-reliable chaffeur. The dog Uggi gives one the greatest performances by an animal in cinema history. His frantic dash down the street is pure magic.
If the silent era were to resurrected, there is no film I can remotely imagine to top this cinematic treasure. A feast for the eyes an ears, the film is a masterpiece.