...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Perhaps it’s no surprise that, in a competition labeled by naysayers as a Hollywood popularity contest, two films that showcase and somewhat idolize the world of film garnered Oscar nominations this year. Both Hugo and The Artist, however, earn the attention with unique and impressive filmmaking.
These two films share several striking similarities, exploring the same eras of film history, as well as some shared themes. The frustrated artist becomes a focal point over the course of these stories, naturally blossoming into tales that address pride, success, change, failure, love, and despair.
At the same time, there are a great number of differences that separate these two nominees. As a mostly-silent film, The Artist is more wholly and overtly dedicated to experimenting with the film medium, attempting to do something new by resurrecting something from the past. This movie pays homage to a bygone era, while purposing to extract lessons from the revolution that took place during the transition from silent films to talkies.
Yet, unlike Hugo, The Artist falters in its attempt to convey something positive out of a tragic scenario. Layered, thematically rich, and well-acted, The Artist is mesmerizing enough to make viewers miss that it ultimately doesn’t say anything—ending up more silent (and pointless) than even the filmmakers intended.
Life is good for actor George Valentin. As one of the top silent film stars, the world is at George’s feet, and that’s just where he likes it. Willing to share the spotlight only with his little dog (his on- and off-screen pal), George alienates his costars with his self-aggrandizing. George’s wife is equally unimpressed with her husband’s sparkling career and obsession with his own glory.
All this negativity is lost on George, as he only sees the flash of the press cameras, the adoring fans, the clapping audiences. Even the Valentin admirers usually don’t get too much of George’s attention, until one particularly pretty one accidentally bumps into the film icon. She is an unknown, starstruck fan, and George has no idea that this young woman will become anything more to him than a momentary blip on the front page of Variety and in his life.
[MILD SPOILER WARNING] When the young lady shows up on the set of one of George’s films, he starts to take more notice. Peppy Miller’s charm, loveliness, and adoration for her screen idol, Valentin, creates an enticing package. But George isn’t the only one whose attention is captured. Producers and moviegoers respond to Peppy, and her own career as an actress starts to accelerate.
[SPOILER WARNING] What no one anticipates is that Peppy’s rise is perfectly timed with the advent of a new technology that would rock the world—talking pictures. With talkies comes the demand for new faces and voices to match. The new is in and the old is out as studios scramble to harness the new technology and find actors who can withstand being heard, as well as seen.
Peppy is the new and George is the old. The result is a classic tale of the mighty fallen, but, for George, the tragedy this time is his own, and it isn’t a movie. In order for George’s story to have a happy ending, the love of Peppy will have to win out over the destructive power of pride and hopelessness.
For most filmmakers and film buffs, The Artist is an exciting must-see. The idea to revisit the silent films of old in this day and age is brave and compelling. In many ways, The Artist does not disappoint. Purists who think movies should rely more on visuals and less on dialogue will thoroughly enjoy this return to film’s roots, as The Artist filmmakers impressively recreate the age when seeing a “picture” meant just that.
Removing the need for sound and rejecting color for black and white translates into less production work and money in some respects. At the same time, the cinematography does not take a hiatus, as lighting becomes of the utmost importance to make the most of the black-and-white photography. The Artist delivers with mood-specific lighting that is appropriately understated so that most audiences won’t notice it is enhancing their viewing experience.
Techniques of old are also resurrected, with transitions, like the “iris-in, iris-out,” being employed that are rarely seen in most modern pictures. In addition, shot compositions are basic and simple, in keeping with the style of the original silent films.
Yet despite the general attempt to match films from the silent era, The Artist has several modern touches that one wonders if the filmmakers fully intended to be there. Many of the cuts, for example, are abrupt and frequent—much more twenty-first century than 1920s. The actors, while they’re well-cast for a silent-era appearance betray their modernity at times.
This is especially the case with Bérénice Bejo, who gives an excellent performance as Peppy, but carries herself differently and has a different demeanor than the real silent film stars. Interestingly, Peppy also has some obvious laugh-lines onscreen that are pleasingly real for modern audiences, but in the old silent films would have been covered with gobs of makeup or obtusely shot—never shown in public.
This is a minor difference, and perhaps an intentional one, but it brings up the point of another obvious change from the original 1920s pictures. The Artist filmmakers aren’t about to sacrifice the technological improvements that have occurred in Hollywood, and the resulting film quality is high enough to appease modern audiences, but leaves the movie looking far from authentic—with a sharpness of image, contrast of lighting shades, etc. that were simply not present in the old films. Again, this choice is likely conscious on the part of the filmmakers, but worth noting for anyone who expects to have an exact experience of the silent film era when watching The Artist.
An element that should be kept in mind with any of these criticisms, is that The Artist is sophisticated enough to separate the silent films it shows the main characters acting in from these characters’ “real” story that the viewers of The Artist see. Thus, some changes from actual old movies are legitimized by the effort to show the real life of the actors who performed in those films (though, ironically, their lives are being shown in a silent movie). As a result, the “mugging” and histrionic acting style that dominated the screen during the silent era is here confined only to the moments the actors are shown in their silent film roles.
This contrast becomes a source of comedy for The Artist, as we see George, for example, don his overdone “acting” face with great effort to shoot a scene. Viewers are also thereby allowed to see singularly impressive performances by Jean Dujardin and Bejo, who manage to convey realism, palpable emotion, and nuanced characters without dialogue or sound.
Of course, no “silent film” was ever completely quiet, as they were accompanied by a crucial musical score (often performed by a live orchestra). The Artist follows suit with a gorgeous, fun, and memorable score by Ludovic Bource. The music seamlessly guides viewers, gently telling them how to react to moments and expressing the film’s intentions, while enabling them to more deeply feel the emotions of the story.
Unfortunately, The Artist filmmakers seem to think the film won’t be accessible enough for the twenty-first century with these elements, and they toss in additional material that had no place on the big screen of old, but is depressingly familiar in recent decades. Among these problematic moments are an actress giving “the finger” to George, the phrase, “Oh, my G--,” used six or seven times (usually noticed only with lip-reading, but also printed once on-screen), “h---” spoken (mouthed) a slew of times, and “d---” used once. Several women (including Peppy) are shown wearing low-cut and/or short dresses, and Peppy’s legs are ogled by George and some other men in one scene.
By modern standards, these concerns may seem slight, but they are still present and shouldn’t be dismissed as safe because they don’t have the power of sound behind them. [SPOILER WARNING] Other negative elements include the fact that George is married when he starts to fall in love with Peppy. To the filmmakers’ credit, George is restrained in his affection toward Peppy and, though she seems inclined to tempt him to something more, the couple is never physically intimate during George’s marriage or even after it falls apart.
Still, George is hardly admirable in his treatment of his wife, as he drives her away with his silence and refusal to care about her or their marriage. George’s silence in this and other relationships becomes a symbolic layer in this sophisticated screenplay, but he sadly never shows remorse for his behavior toward his wife. Thus, this aspect of the story becomes one of many that seem to hold out the promise of a positive message, only to drop it in the mud at the end.
The worst of these is the journey of George whose story, as the main character, is of primary interest in the film. Pride, viewers are clearly shown, is much to be blamed for George’s fall from glory to suicidal failure, and optimistic audiences will be waiting for a naturally expected change in George’s character or outlook, if he is to rise from his situation. While viewers are waiting, George plummets into the epitome of the frustrated artist, ruining his own life out of self-pity, misplaced blame, and the rampant emotions that were once channeled into his creative work.
During George’s fall from grace, he is supported by a few remaining friends. The loyalty and love of Peppy, George’s chauffeur, and his highly-trained dog become the shining ray of hope in The Artist, as love faces off against the darkness that threatens to consume the fallen star. Given the light and classic tone of this film, one expects a happy ending to this effort—a triumph of love over despair and true happiness for all.
[SPOILER WARNING] Sadly, the filmmakers seem to have tried their best to deliver such an ending, but fall drastically short. Don’t be fooled by the smiles and happy music at the end—George’s grinning face reflects only the final turn of events, not a changed heart. With the prospect of a renewed career and return to glory in front of him, of course George is happy and wants to live again. But viewers have only to review the prior scenes of the film to know how precarious George’s contentment is.
George has not learned to humble himself, let go of his pride, or find fulfillment in something other than a successful film career. It isn’t Peppy’s love that saves him, but rather her clever idea for getting George back in front of the camera. Yet, this resolution is presented as a happy ending and disguised as a love-conquers-all finale.
Viewers who look a little closer will see the disappointing message that this film really ends up communicating: The artist’s reason for living is worldly, creative success—anything less means unhappiness and makes life worthless. If that is indeed the message of The Artist, as artistically as it is said, everyone would be better off if the film kept truly silent.