Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
There is, about a silent, black and white feature movie introduced in the year 2011, something so apparently hopeless that you know it has something up its sleeve to amaze and charm us. Even granting this design frappe, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist carries a mastery of dynamics so agile, witty and daring as to leave us speechless during the final credits.
A silent film star digs in his heels when pressured to contemplate a feature involving talk that can be heard, insisting, “I’m an artist!” [after all, and speaking, however well-considered, self-evidently kills the magic sustaining the rewards of cinema]. His aces in the hole include a devil-may-care smile, a twinkle in his eyes and easy laughter—not very unlike the pop of Gene Kelly in his prime (say, in Singin’ in the Rain)—and, the source of much of that laughter, a winsome little terrier with a repertoire of lightning-quick human responses—not very unlike that of Nick and Nora’s Asta (the talkie home field of which sends out some promising vibrations, like a restaurant pager announcing one’s table is ready). Getting in the way of a smooth, Hollywood ending, however, is his imminent exile (as suddenly unemployable) to palatial quarters not very unlike those of Norma Desmond in the sobering viscosity coming to us under the title, Sunset Boulevard. We begin with him on a night like so many he’s had, self-impressedly basking in adulation from his huge fan-base on the occasion of his newest hit. After a curtain-call spent cavorting with that irresistible pup and ignoring his blonde, klutzy co-star, he’s out on the sidewalk in front of the theatre, giving the kind of press and radio interview Gene Kelly brought off with such incandescent conviviality at the beginning of that classic about the dialectics of gloomy (rainy) times. Then one of his fans, hitherto held behind a security line, a girl with her own reservoir of devil-may-care, plunges forward to retrieve her purse, dislodged in the commotion; and he’s as delighted to see her as he is when beholding the spunk of his terrier. She is Peppy Miller, and in her will-o’-the-wisp spareness she reminds us of someone in another Gene Kelly movie (only this time Gene’s lost his mojo, he’s called Andy Miller and he meets the love of his life in helping her retrieve the contents of a somewhat larger than purse-size container, a book bag vibing a world of talk and [musical] sounds). That would be The Young Girls of Rochefort, and that would be our French filmmaker bringing his Hollywood dust-up into the more comprehensive tribulations of a Gallic precursor, Jacques Demy.
Having now shaken free a bit of what’s up the sleeve of this movie seemingly looking for trouble, we can begin to appreciate its cinematic deliciousness—first of all, in the little touch of our star’s eventually drawing a beauty spot on Peppy’s cheek. This bemusing gesture dates from the early stages of their rather rocky and yet consistently gentle romance (the star being named, George Valentin). Peppy goes from being a front-page photo, included in the great man’s sizzle when first bumping into her—the press doing their damnedest, with the inane caption, “Who’s That Girl?” (to no avail to her nascent career in the movies)—to being an extra in his next work of art, unknowingly charming him with a bit of warm-up tap dancing, and therewith landing a meatier part wherein she dances with the protagonist (and their love for each other causes multiple snafus and re-takes, shown in a lovely little passage where the demands of doing justice to life encroach upon the demands of delivering a stilted product), to breaking into his studio office and being discovered by him making love to his dinner jacket on a hanger, a delightful little flight of her body language (that could be convertible to pithy speech) wherein she inserts one of her arms in a sleeve, turning it into his arm and hand pressing upon her hip. The busy man, having pretty well forgotten her, can’t help but be flattered; and it is then that he flips her way the presumably invaluable heads-up about what it takes to become a bona fide film artist. “You need to have something the other girls don’t.” He anoints her, and then his chauffeur comes in with some glittering jewellery he’d ordered to buy some patience from his largely ignored and increasingly resentful wife (collateral damage due to his precious and vain sensual carte blanche, which evokes from her the repeated tirade, “Why won’t you talk!?”) So there is Peppy, her lithe face corrected for mass consumption, and feeling very out of her element, in fact washed out to sea. (The chauffeur had side-tracked their readiness for a kiss.) She had inscribed on his mirror, “Thank you.” When he notices it after she’s gone, he realizes how much better a solicitude she deserves, and then he shrugs and resorts to the glib gesture of making his fingers perform shooting himself in the head, part of a vivid juxtaposition revealing the discrepancy between what each has brought to the encounter.
Being a spunky kid, she’s soon back in the game; but we want to savor in slo-mo the ins and outs of her brush with that half-hearted advice. While they carried on that very public flirtation, the radiance of her smile and the intuitive glamor of her body’s kinetics traced across the microcosm of a whole sound stage, as did the corresponding humor and warmth of the Valentin. She had already the makings of a star, being distinctively evocative to the point of inducing him to put his best foot forward, not merely glowing with verve and wit for the cameras, but for all of life. (He pulls rank on a stodgy director [whose first impulse is to run her off the lot for skewing Variety’s publicity away from the film] to get her a role as an individual, not merely one of a crowd.) In presuming to get her on track by means of a static speck, Valentin sends our way the unsteadiness of his powers and priorities, and the state of being mortgaged to prim (only faintly kinetic) schemes that had always paid off until then (Don Lockwood, at the outset of Singin’). The source of the question, “Who’s That Girl?” is the show-biz publication, Variety, and its surfacing over multiple ticks of the narrative gives us to understand that flexibility (variety) of presence is an issue not to be taken for granted. Later on, after she hits her stride, there is a rapid sequence of a variety of clips from films where she’s in the spotlight, for example, as a cute maid coming between a middle-aged couple, and as a baseball player in a professional woman’s league. Then we have her as Miss Isadora, where, in her chic whites, she graces a tennis club—and we have to recall La Deneuve in Belle de Jour.
The faux-mole functions as a premonition of a keyhole fade-out on George’s gravy train. The stodgy producer-director shows marked flexibility about the meteoric popularity of talkies, which he covers with the careless cliché, “The public wants fresh meat.” George, waving aside the boss’ linking the future to the play of spoken sounds (“You can keep it [i.e., the future]”), goes on to produce an entrenchment called Tears of Love, which opens at the same time as the studio’s talkie, Beauty Spot—starring Peppy (proof against superficial non-starters). The behind-the-scenes vignettes of his striking forth on his own, showing him swamped with the workload of writer-director-star-producer, presage disaster. He’s at a Barton Fink typewriter; he’s straining to enthuse, from the director’s chair, about the Ed Wood-like unfolding of a wannabe jungle epic; and he’s signing a load of checks, with nothing incoming. Even before getting underway, he has a moment recalling Guido, the hapless, but headed for enlightenment about extra-curricular love, filmmaker, in Fellini’s 8 ½. He’s just burned his bridges with Zimmer (the Head), he steps out of the office and into blazing sunlight and close to blinding reflection from the white walls of a sound stage, and a group of leggy showgirls walk past, their laughter somewhat painful to him. (Zimmer’s concern, “Kinogram,” is a German term for “Cinema of Trouble.”
His semi-secret admirer’s skills with devil-may-care adventures have not precluded, but have in fact embraced spoken interactions as a means of reaching an audience living in the perhaps grubby (but at least not precious) world of 360 degrees expressivity. Valentine’s doleful pith-helmet misadventure ends with his character’s death by quicksand, and a musty farewell speech to the love-interest (played by a sort of Grace Kelly-handsome but wooden figure), “Farewell, Norma! I never loved you!”—Norma Desmond’s Joe’s position, for sure, and also Valentin’s position of not conveying any overriding love. The attendance level of the premiere is reminiscent of a mid-week vespers service, or wee-small-hours at Club Silencio. And there is Peppy, in that balcony alcove, feeling the hurt and crying a little. Her hot new ticket, playing in a theatre next door, is jam-packed, celebration is in the air; and you might never guess how closely this early-Depression escape fits with an escape-deprived twenty-first century.
The pep emanating from Beauty Spot sets in relief George’s listless self-pity and personal and financial tailspin. Unlike Norma, he capitulates to the judgment of the market—the concomitant 1929 Crash and subsequent Depression rolling along just outside his window—and thereby virtually abandons the kinetic gifts he so validly (if confusedly) maintained. His wife, getting nowhere with the gambit, “I’m unhappy… We have to talk…” and producing a series of defaced portraits of the emasculated mover and shaker, gives him a week to clear out (by contrast with the fate of Adam in Mulholland Drive). Now far more akin to Andy Miller than Don Lockwood—whose retuning with the assistance of (seldom-seen) Kathy Selden’s more robust wit and love strikes a promising note amidst the quicksand—Valentin drifts downward, auctioning off his mementos (which Peppy directs her servants to buy) and settling into a dreary room reminiscent of Barton Fink’s home base for floundering amidst the more bewildering aspects of Hollywood.
At this point, augmenting Peppy’s coming to bear as a keynote of non-careerist priorities—a point largely missed by commentators intent on pegging it as a well-crafted curiosity about inconsequentially innocent show-biz charmers of yesteryear—two figures from Valentin’s entourage, his terrier and his valet-chauffeur, struggle against the deadly wake streaming out of the tackiness that jumped at us in the form of that beauty spot. Uggy the dog—far more focused on hugs than applause—never lets his master’s preoccupation with whisky dull his purchase upon meaningful love, and thus he can still occasionally bring a twinkle to the eyes of the lachrymose star-no-more. When, finally, the emotional insolvency becomes emotional bankruptcy, he rips all the reels of his triumphs from their canisters and torches them in a mordant self-immolation, and Uggy runs for a cop and has him saved at the last minute (though severely burned). As we see the little guy racing along the street to bring off the rescue, we’re struck by how this most empty of clichés takes fire from its being centered in a struggle to maintain a strain of grace seldom seen, which would supersede bathetic gestures. Speaking of turning one’s back on show-biz glories, we have Clifton, not a former A-list director, like Norma’s butler-chauffeur, Max, but willing to work for nothing at Valentin’s flea-bag and, even when dismissed for his reminding the faded star how faded he is, lingering day and night outside with the limo that his employer gives him in lieu of salary. He eventually moves on to work for Peppy (reminding George at one point, “Miss Miller is a good person, believe me”), who brings us to the central and unlikely force downplaying a smashing career for the sake of real pizzazz.
On reading in the paper about the bygone star’s being hospitalized, she rushes from the set of her latest successful communication to confront that unfinished business with him, which has proved intractable to every one of her overtures to date. She is heartened to find that the film he had clung to in what he expected to be his dying moments was the one she had popped up in, and she promptly offers her place for the still comatose Valentin’s convalescence. On awakening he regains a bit of the old Kelly grin on realizing she has cared for him; but, on being presented (by Clifton) with the script of her current film project, in order to prep for the part she has finagled for him and on finding all his auction sales in one of her many rooms to spare, his careerist vanity clicks in, he feels like a stereotypical charity case and he races back to the now-charred precincts of Barton Fink, finally sure of riding that downbeat to a savage conclusion, in accordance with losing heart in face of an elusive artistry. Taking a pistol from a Pandora’s Box that registers in only one direction, he puts the barrel into his mouth (site of so much malaise), and Uggy struggles to pull his arm away. Peppy, finding him gone, races through the streets of LA in her limo, on several occasions escaping by inches a deadly collision. The predictability of the rescue—as with the rescue from the fire—is tempered in three ways, each one speaking to matters far beyond filmic melodrama and pat “happily ever after.” The “Bang!” taking over the screen turns out to be Peppy harmlessly crashing into the tree out front where Clifton had enacted his pointless vigil beside another limo. This funny coincidence asserts the exigency of amusement and laughter as against sombre self-destruction. Valentin’s not being able to pull the trigger speaks to his still reserving a place in his heart for that glimmer of delight which, unbeknown, informed his formerly effective devil-may-care with communicative factors transcending the entertainment business. And Uggy’s playing dead at the bang deliriously covers the windfall of dangerous fun and its basis of (much relieved) love.
The young girls of Rochefort only put it all together for one song as stand-ins at a Sunday afternoon show in the provinces before an undiscriminating audience. Now we have two pros (one of them an ex-pro) who know about wowing the world but still can’t put it all together as partners in a changing world. Peppy—like Kathy in Singin’—proposes a musical overlay to her current vehicle, Sparkle of Love, and she’s hit upon a way to induce from Valentin his calling as a funny valentine—a way that has been inspired by the funny suicide. Valentin’s former bagman—Zimmer (head over heart), played by John Goodman, who, in Barton Fink, facilitates the protagonist’s timorous resentments and moonlights as a serial killer (on one occasion seriously singeing the digs after beheading a recalcitrant and gracious woman)—still on the job of thrilling millions for the sake of millions and now the business end of Peppy’s celluloid magic, is less than enthusiastic about her plan to bring Valentin on board The Sparkle of Love. “He’s a nobody.” She faces him down the way Valentin did, on her behalf, even skidding into a Valentin-resembling state of tongue-tied—“It’s either him or me.” Zimmer once again proves far more flexible than Barton’s pal, and there they are, in his office, giving him a sample of what he’s now financing, a scene that blends into the sound stage, cameras rolling. They’re into a dance routine together, both turning out high-wattage smiles and bodily delight—now perhaps kinetically more on the order of Fred and Ginger. Valentine doesn’t speak or sing words, but he talks a little with the taps on his dancing shoes. During the film’s piquant little plunge into sound and its metabolic shift, Valentin remarks (with completely no sense of momentousness and with a French accent that’s jarring here), “Weez playzoor,” when Zimmer asks for a second take of the scene. Sure, he has a way to go (as does she, and as do all of us). But he has regained the comedic touch and, with a lot of help from friends, found his way into the gossamer exertions of modern comedy. The last moment, showing a Busby Berkley-reminiscent platoon of clapperboards on a set trailing from Sparkle of Love, comprises a crosscurrent between popular material success and being on a pressurized firing line. You have to have your wits about you not to fall for this little charmer’s soupcon of “happily ever after.” The prickly producer—he, of a hidden and scary track record—beams at their little debut, and, in pushover mode, yells out, “That’s perfect!” (If only all the stumbling blocks were as good-natured as Ed Wood!) The essential fractiousness that these sweethearts have gallantly touched upon has been brought into its bruising stature by none other than Peppy herself. During the episode of the premieres passing in opposite directions, Valentin—who was, at a screening of Peppy’s efficient little concoction (promisingly, he thought), approached by a rapturous filmgoer, only to hear her enthuse about Uggy (a flash of the general public liking what Norma had, along lines of her remarkable car)—takes a subdued bite at a Hollywood hang-out and who should come in (not noticing him) but Peppy, doing a radio interview at the next table? The interviewer marvels that, though this was just her first starring role, she’s already approached iconic status. “How do you explain that, Miss Miller?” Peppy, who, turned out as the ne plus ultra of flapper chic, was definitely no stranger to career ambitions, smiles self-satisfiedly and reaches back for reflections that had occurred to her for some time. She’s pleased to note that she has an affinity with the general public, and goes on to specify the contours of this confluence. “I talk, and the audience can hear me” [as immersed in the heartland of their strongest interests]… My work has nothing to do with the mugging you see in old movies, that they imagined helping them to be understood… Make way for the young—that’s life!” Valentin painfully comes over to her table, offers his congratulations and says without gusto, “I’ve made way for you.” Her face registers quiet shock that she’s hurt someone she loves and that, for all their soundness, her remarks were stupid, evoking in fact a never-ending cycle of hate and destruction, whereby those briefly basking in some mumbo jumbo of idiomatic advantage will in turn take that ride to the slaughter-house.
This film’s title appears to pose the question of in what way each of them is an “artist.” Or, does it playfully include Uggy? This is a cast brimming with sensual mastery in various states of disarray, not, therefore, so unlike that of The Young Girls of Rochefort. On seeing his money quickly go down the drains called Tears of Love and the Crash, Valentin still manages a believable smile and says, like a character in one of his movies, “It looks like we’ve gone broke.” In such cavalier, devil-may-care gestures (however fleeting) toward world historical advantage, we might be upon an extension of artistry away from the spotlights and toward keeping other lights burning. One rainy night, soon after her putting her foot in her mouth, Peppy drives over to his mansion accompanied by a young boyfriend (during her-bit-part-days she bumps into George at the studio and assures him that such picturesque entities are “Toys”) who unhelpfully avers, “My father is a big fan of yours.” She tells the falling star that that bit about mugging was “not true.” He’s not in a conciliatory mood—“You were right. Make way for the young.” Back in the car, she tells her friend, “I want to be alone.” Here we have: Garbo, trying to get beyond Tinseltown; Norma’s Joe, trying to get back to Dayton; and Demy’s Guy (from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), brushing off Geneviève (whose child is in the car parked at Guy’s place and uses snowfall for her toy)—his only purchase upon poetry—for a segment of Pandora’s Box wherein stolid family life will have to do. Such a chequered provenance seems to speak to a bit of sunlight gracing our more doughty adventurers. Hence, perhaps, the film’s only sustained song, “Pennies from Heaven” (“Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?”), its saccharine fillip for a world struggling with the Great Depression, undergoes a recycle to meet a monstrously harsh vein of productivity. During the sequence wherein that upbeat confirmation trips along, we see Peppy surrounded by make-up and wardrobe ladies, and she is fitted for silver slippers, à la Cinderella and à la the Princess in Donkey Skin, played by that guiding spirit, Catherine Deneuve. This somewhat mordant royalty serves as a remote tuning device, inasmuch as the modest triumph of Valentin and Peppy, due to the palpable love they fold into their career, has struggled to an adult vantage point, markedly different from the childishness of the Blue Princess and the Red Prince. In the glow of the loving upshot of the suicide attempt (the run-up to which features a tense and eerie musical theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for a revelation of having been duped), Peppy, setting forth, as she caresses him, “If only you’d allow me to help you!”, finds to her surprise that Valentin is at last ready to pay attention. (In addition to his face frequently disclosing that he knows he’s being an ass, there is the moment of alcoholic delirium at a bar, when he imagines miniatures of the star [himself] and a tribe of Zulus from Tears of Love trying to rally him, the guy in the pith helmet calling him a “loser.”) What he pays attention to is enacted in the fleeting final moments of this eventful circling of their moment of truth. They’re auditioning for Zimmer a dance number and, from out of their mutual affection, we hear their tap dance rhythms which, though winsome, are hardly epiphantic. And that’s just it. The reflux that won’t go away has been folded into a quite modest entertainment. Zimmer hopefully inflates it to, “That’s perfect!” They’re on the set, having a ball—even doing a few (heretical) Fred and Ginger turns—and after the call, “Cut,” they’re asked to do the scene again. Valentin, suddenly the co-star he’d laughed at during her test for a part in a talkie, gives us the “Weez playzoor,” and its startling deficit. They take their places behind a long corridor of clapboards, anticipating a life of reaching out, for better or worse.