Release: 2011-10-12 (France wide), 2012-01-20 (US)
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Production: France, Belgium, USA
Language: English, almost all in intertitles
MPAA rating: PG-13
Cast: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin), Bérénice Bejo (Peppy Miller), Malcolm McDowell (The Butler), John Goodman (Al Zimmer), and many more
The Artist is an almost entirely silent film about the transition from the silent film era to the "talkies" and about the artists who were abruptly cast aside during that change. Filmed in black and white and in a period-true 4:3 aspect ratio, it shows both the silent actors and their talking competitors from the silent star's view. In the United States, The Artist was the first major release of a silent feature in 35 years.
The story is about George Valentin, who could be a stand-in for any number of silent film stars. Despite the similarity in style and name, a connection to Rudolph Valentino would be misplaced since Valentino died in 1926 and never had to contend with talking pictures. An argument could be made that he's a melange of many actors, but most notably (I would say) Douglas Fairbanks.
Valentin randomly encounters aspiring starlet Peppy Miller on two occasions. When his producer takes exception to her presence in his vicinity, he advocates for her and, in private, gives her some pointers for the future. As Valentin's star continues to shine, Peppy's keeps rising until the day on which his producer (and John Goodman makes a great nasty producer) summons George to a meeting and declares silent movies dead.
Some people are change-averse. After Valentin pooh-poohs the idea of talkies, he sets out to produce his own silent extravagant jungle adventure on his own dime. Predictably enough, opening night finds his film competing with Miller's newest and playing to empty theatres. At this point Valentin's career takes a nosedive along with his finances, marital bliss, and everything else that goes down the drain when your American Dream goes south.
While George Valentin uses the last of his money to crawl into a bottle and comes out only to caress his old reels, his butler (McDowell in a first-rate performance) keeps working for him without pay. In the meantime, Miss Miller is aware of his situation and quietly does things that are now within her power as a top-earning performer. The two will meet again, of course, or we'd have no movie, silent or otherwise. And when they meet, there's even a chance of a happy Hollywood ending.
Is there more to this than a human interest story?
I'm just writing a brief review, not a history of Hollywood but here's the most important thing about the advent of talkies: talking pictures provided for the nuances of dialogue that sometimes obviated the need for all character interaction to have a physical dimension. One day this refinement would find its peak in the acting genre that lets motion-challenged actors stand around like xoana and recite lines before massive audiences: the soap opera. Here we do not actually see much talking footage. The action leaves the big screen and silently follows the actors home.
Though the primary conflict and contrast is presented as a generational one between Valentin and Miller, there was also a change in the style of leading men taking place at the time. Clark Gable is the silent star's antithesis and replacement. Gable is the rough, talking character hero to Fairbanks/Valentin's handsome, swashbuckling has-been. Gable would take Hollywood's male lead into the future and in the direction of James Dean and Steve MacQueen.
The film tries hard for perfection but there are a few things that don't quite work for me. One thing that The Artist does not manage to (or even try to) answer is why Valentin can't make it in the talkies once he sees the light. His acting style, while a bit dated, was not completely outmoded as long as actors like Errol Flynn and David Niven were still making it big in the chemise-ripping business. I feel like the film's premise needs a stronger underpinning that will give the audience a better idea why Valentin has to be the one who falls by the wayside.
A lot of people writing about this film are under the impression that The Artist chronicles not so much a transition of technologies and generations as much as a shift towards empowering women in the film industry. While I'll grant that talkies brought a very substantial gain for female characters, it also let them look as vapid with sound as they looked helpless without it. The people writing female characters continued to be white American men of circa 1930. And in 1930 Betty Boop was subversive. Peppy Miller the actress was not. But Peppy Miller the person is the strong character in this 21st century film and uses her power for good. The questions is left as an exercise to the viewer whether it's 1930 Valentin or 2011 Valentin that can't stomach the idea of being rescued by the leading dame.
I think the entire film's weakest spot, stemming from the story and script, is how it manufactures conflict where none is needed and makes the clashes between the characters look somewhat contrived. It also worries me a bit to see how, in the character interaction in particular, it preserves the theatrical style that Hollywood broke with very early on to create the Movie Actor. Perhaps it's the fact that I did not see it on the big screen but I was left with an uneasy feeling that perhaps I ought to have watched it on Broadway, not on my television. Perhaps, though, it's just an unconscious intrusion of European acting values. Or maybe it's just me. Everyone seems to read something different in this film.
Should you watch it?
You should not miss it. It's only original in its choice of format and medium (original for this day and age, of course) but even as "just" a movie, and notwithstanding my criticism of the script, The Artist is very, very well made and is well deserving of the awards bestowed upon it by the critics. You may want to compare it with other old movies and see how faithful the creators have tried to be to the spirit and technique of the silent film. Go for a case of the black and white warm fuzzies and watch it.
Film critic style rating: * * * * (4/5)