Silent films, like theater, require their audience members to suspend a sense of reality, investing instead in wonder, imagination, and sensory titillation. The greatest films of the silent era were able to transform the dart of an eye, the contortion of a dimple, or the mournful whine of a violin into entirely new vernaculars. It is no small thing to be able to communicate character complexity in a look or a gesture, or to inspire empathy through a series of comically ill-fated endeavors. Greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplan, and Louise Brooks skillfully dealt in irony, metaphor, allusion, comical paradox, satire, and rib-tickling slight-of-hand. Which is exactly why, despite the being billed as such, The Artist is no silent movie. It is silent (for the most part), but behind the look, 1920s score, and winking fun, it is a movie largely without substance and, ironically, artistry.
The Artist’s title character is the fictional silent film great, George Valentin, played with Gene Kelly suave by Jean Dujardin, a debonair silent film actor with a monsieur moustache and a gift for animated facial expressions. The Artist opens with a long shot of a packed movie theater—creating a sort of “mirror in a mirror forever” feeling—and the opening of George’s latest and greatest silent movie. When it ends, George prances onto the stage and both the real and fictional audiences are delighted with several minutes of Valentin hamming it up with his terrier sidekick, much to the chagrin of his co-star who can’t get her 15 seconds in the spotlight. Aspiring actress Peppy Miller, played with vaudevillian humor by Berenice Bejo, bumbles into Valentin at the press event following the opening and—voila—a presumably fated match is made. Far from intimidated or embarrassed, the indomitable Peppy makes the most of her encounter, grabs Valentin’s arm and mugs for the cameras. Following an initial and enduring spark between the two, we watch Peppy’s acting career climb while Valentin’s wanes as he scoffs at the rise of “talkies,” vowing to remain committed to the silent genre. More than that, he challenges his ex-studio to an ideological duel by swearing to make a silent movie that will be better than any talkie they could ever make.
And so he proceeds to make a silent movie that in no way innovates or improves upon the genre. Rather than giving the talkies a go with his tail temporarily between his legs, he decides instead to sink himself into a multi-year bender. In the meantime, Peppy has become Hollywood’s darling on par with Meg Ryan circa before her face changed. As Valentin loses it all, plucky Peppy makes a bundle, keeps her self-respect and wherewithal, and, still carrying a torch, secretly acts as Valentin’s guardian angel. And so it goes throughout the rest of The Artist; Peppy and George meet occasionally, rekindle their spark, George retreats back into his stupor, Peppy does something helpful for him, eventually a near tragedy happens, and the movie ends with a surprise.
Though the character arcs of the film are formulaic and lack complexity, The Artist can’t be faulted for any of its actor’s performances. Both Dujardin and Bejo are charming, and each plays their character with effervescence and wit. An early scene where Bejo does a spot-on, Keaton-esque bit with Valentin’s coat is one of the best in the movie and Dujardin’s gift of elastic eyebrows produces some belly laugh moments throughout. The failing of The Artist is in its execution. Making an homage to the silent era in 2011 is an incredible opportunity to recreate the magic of the 1920s experience for contemporary audiences, or to take the tropes of silent film masterpieces and innovate or improve upon them. The Artist does neither. Instead, it banks on the perceived value of having a simultaneously nostalgic and novel experience of seeing a “silent movie.” It relies heavily on “likeability” gimmicks, cinematography clichés, and over-baked tricks. What better way to communicate a descent into semi-madness than with a shot of a drunken Valentin gazing Narcissus-style into his own reflection at his glass-topped kitchen table? Why not skew the camera angle a little bit so that the audience can’t tell which is the “real” George? Or how about randomly adding the sounds of cacophonous gibberish in order to foreshadow the coming age of talking movies? It’s like the auditory equivalent of the “girl in red” from Schindler’s List. Once you imagine the characters speaking, it becomes apparent that, despite the pretense of ingenuity, The Artist is actually a fairly standard rom-com in content.
Much like its lead character, who to his own detriment swears off the future in favor of a pale imitation of former greatness, The Artist flatly conjures up vague memories of an exciting and wondrous time in film history for modern day audiences who can’t get enough of anything that reminds us of better, more sparkly times. George Valentin stuck to his pride and to his fear, not to some deep ideological, artistic authenticity. The Artist’s title and execution make you wonder what exactly, if anything, it’s trying to say about artistic integrity and enterprise. Have we really gotten to a place as a society where pretty, but largely empty, nostalgic endeavors qualify as artistry and go down in the books as “classics?”
Despite its Golden Globe and all of the Oscar buzz, The Artist isn’t actually a “great” film that warrants a reputation as an “immediate classic.” While it may feel like an innovative breath of fresh air by today’s standards, it doesn’t really push any envelopes. Perhaps that says more about what we’ve come to accept as innovation and artistic vision than it does about the quality of The Artist’s execution. It is, however, a really fun movie that makes us feel a little better and reminds us that every era has its ups and downs. Given the current state of national and global affairs, that sort of respite is in and of itself valuable. But in some ways, and likely unintentionally, it also reminds us that trying to relive better times will only get you stuck in a fog of self-pity, tripping balls on cheap whisky at a glass table ripe for cheap metaphors. So you better take a tip from the proverbial Peppy Miller and pick yourself up, look life in the eyes, and dance forward into the unknown.