He didn't need dialogue! He had his face!
By Edward Copeland
Writing a review of The Artist has proved unusually difficult for me. I watched the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago and found it charming enough but — and perhaps it's appropriate — I was at a loss for words. Not because the movie bowled me over so much that I was awestruck, I just felt that either I was missing something or the film was. I decided to watch The Artist a second time to try and determine what gnawed at me.
On the off chance you haven't heard about The Artist, I'll give you a brief synopsis of its plot. After all, the movie will be crowned the newest Academy Award-winning best picture Sunday night, you should probably know. There isn't much of a plot so it won't take long. In 1927, one of the biggest stars of the silent film era is George Valentin (Oscar nominee Jean Dujardin). Outside the premiere of his latest film, an eager fan named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, also nominated) stumbles into a paparazzi shot with Valentin and, later, as an extra on one of his films. From there, the story unfolds along the lines of A Star Is Born. Only in The Artist, George Valentin's career doesn't plummet because of alcohol but by sound coming to motion pictures. Peppy soars at the same time.
The Artist alludes to so many different films, I'm sure I missed some. What fascinated me about the choices was that the overwhelming number of references writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes come from the sound era. For a throwback to the days of black-and-white silent films, very few pay tribute to classics of that era. (The closest — and it's a reach — is the opening scene of a film within the film showing Valentin strapped down with electrodes sending shocks to his head that vaguely recall Metropolis. Of course, he's not a robot and it gives the movie funny lines to open with as he tells his interrogators that he won't speak.) Contrast that with Martin Scorsese's nostalgic look back at silent film in his three-dimensional, color, sound production of Hugo which overflows with sets and sequences that include shout-outs to famous silent films such as Modern Times and Safety Last.
In The Artist, the breakfast table scenes between George and his wife, Doris (a nearly unrecognizable Penelope Ann Miller), obviously aims to evoke the famous scene in Citizen Kane. They revisit Kane later when George discovers that all of his personal treasures that the collapse of his career and the economy force him to auction have been stored in a room in Peppy's mansion beneath sheets. His find leads to the use of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score that gave Kim Novak a conniption fit. While I don't share the actress's over-the-top objections to its use, I do have to ask what message the audience should take from its presence. First, assuming that your average moviegoer recognizes that the music that begins playing comes from Hitchcock's classic (and that's a big if), by George's frantic fleeing, is the implication that Valentin fears that Peppy wants to shape him into his own image as Scottie Ferguson wished to turn Judy into Madeleine? Perhaps given their history of encounters he suspect she's a stalker.
You also can be pretty certain going into a silent film made in 2011 about the downward spiral of a silent film star that you aren't getting out of the theater without some Sunset Blvd. references. Valentin makes for the obvious Norma surrogate in this scenario. When the studio boss (John Goodman) tells him that he better not laugh at sound because it's the future, Valentin says (or, more accurately, a title card reads), "If that's the future, you can have it." Valentin even goes so far as to decide to make his own silent movie, though in 1929 he's typing out his screenplay instead of scribbling out a script of Salome as Norma Desmond was still doing by the time 1950 showed up. The big difference between Valentin and Norma though is that Valentin isn't bonkers and perhaps neither was Norma that soon after talkies took over. The crucial part of Sunset Blvd. concerns the screenwriter Joe Gillis seeking refuge in Norma's garage and meeting her, thinking he can scam her before he basically becomes a prisoner in her mansion. In The Artist, after being saved from a fire by the quick-thinking of his pooch Uggie (don't ask), George ends up hospitalized and Peppy takes him back to her mansion in a way, making her the Norma. This precedes the discovery of his auctioned memorabilia and the borrowing of Herrmann's Vertigo score. Even though earlier, Valentin's former chauffeur/butler Clifton (James Cromwell), who kept working for George for a year without pay but now works for Peppy swears to his former boss that Peppy "has a good heart." The Artist fires mixed signals all over the place.
Surprisingly, The Artist tends to steer clear of any direct references to the classic Singin' in the Rain, my choice and the choice of many others for Hollywood's greatest movie musical, that also covered film's transition to sound. Obviously, since The Artist eschews sound, except for a couple of appropriate moments, it can't very well be a musical or make a joke about a silent star having a horrible voice that won't work in talkies. More importantly, I don't think The Artist dared to go there because comparing it to Singin' in the Rain would be too dangerous. It can toss out references to great movies such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Sunset Blvd. because as a whole The Artist bears little resemblance to those films. Singin' in the Rain holds a mirror up to the essential emptiness inside The Artist.
This isn't to say that The Artist is a bad film, not by any means. It's affable, well directed and entertaining. It has many nice and funny moments. (One that probably only amused someone like me is the first time Peppy gets a screen credit, they misspell her first name as Pepi. It still amazes me how many times that happens. Frank Capra's 1948 film State of the Union was on recently and spelled Katharine Hepburn's above-the-title name as Katherine. No one has bothered to correct this in more than 60 years?) Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography shimmers but I have to say that the original portions of Ludovic Bource's score can be overbearing. If they really wanted to do a silent movie now, why not have a score that sounds like what a moviegoer might have heard in a theater in 1927? Something simple, on a pipe organ, not a fully orchestrated blow-out-your-eardrums composition.
Jean Dujardin makes the film. You could believe he came from the silent era, yet when he's playing the offscreen Valentin you see the difference. Bérénice Bejo isn't the same story. There isn't much subtlety in anything she does.
I finally put my finger on what gnawed at me about The Artist. It's like the old joke about eating Chinese food. It's fulfilling enough while you're consuming it, but a few hours later you're hungry again.