Eighty-three years after the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1928 when Wings took home the Academy’s highest honor, another silent film won Best Picture. The Artist wasn’t actually silent, as it did have musical accompaniment and there were a couple of sequences with synchronized sound, but it was still a silent film for all intents and purposes. It used many of the same motifs with title cards showing important lines of dialogue, and a largely visual story. There were also great uses of visual cues to tell us what we would have otherwise been hearing. It was also the first black and white Best Picture winner since The Apartment in 1960. Even though this is a seemingly simple film with little or no special effects, it’s still a visually powerful and compelling film that is enjoyable. I greatly admire what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish, and I love the fact that this film got made. This film should be an inspiration to filmmakers everywhere to try to think outside the box
I remember having high hopes for The Artist when it first came out. I was already a fan of this team’s work. Director Michel Hazanavicius had already directed Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in the French spy comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which is one of the top five funniest films I’ve ever seen in my life. In that film, Dujardin plays a French secret agent who is one part James Bond and one part Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and Bejo (who is married to Hazanavicius) played the love interest who was more similar to a “Bond Girl” than a classic romantic interest. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and try to find a copy. I was in absolute stitches from laughing while watching that film. A couple of years later Hazanavicius and Dujardin teamed up again for OSS 117: Lost in Rio, and while it was not as funny as the first film, it was still funnier than most other films I’ve ever seen and is worth watching as well.
So when I heard that the three of them were getting back together for The Artist, a silent film about the death of the silent film era, I was as excited as I had been for the release of a film in a long time. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as the OSS films, and really, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than an entertaining film. And an entertaining film is what we got, but we didn’t get a whole lot more. In fact, at one hour and forty minutes, it’s one of the shortest films to ever win Best Picture, and yet on my initial viewing I felt like the film dragged through the second act. Dare I say I even felt a little bored? Whatever the case, I walked out of the theater that night feeling slightly disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed enough to be upset, and I still enjoyed the film for the most part, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I expected I would.
I hadn’t seen The Artist since that one time, and in watching it again this past weekend I feel like I’ve gained a new appreciation for it. Is it a spectacular film? No it is not, but it is a very solid film that tells a compelling story about two people headed in opposite directions in their lives. One of them helps the other one out to start the story and then the other one helps the original out to end it, so there is a lovely symmetry to the story as well as a well-structured story arc and well-developed characters.
The main character is George Valentin (Dujardin), the greatest silent film star in Hollywood, and a character seemingly modelled in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks. He is charismatic and sophisticated and he lives a life of luxury in his ostentatious Beverly Hills mansion. He always gets the girl, at least in the movies, however in real life, his female so-star Constance (Missi Pyle) hates him because he soaks up all of the spotlight, and his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) constantly shows her contempt for him by defacing images of him that she finds in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and other magazines and newspapers. She’s also constantly jealous of the women he stars with and the fact that their marriage is clearly one that is on the rocks is obvious to everyone except George. In fact George is so self-absorbed that when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows him a “talking picture”, he dismisses it as a novelty. Even when he’s forced out of the studio, he claims to be an artist who will not condescend to what he feels is a fad. He ends up spending almost every dime he has to produce his own silent film.
Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bejo) is ascending the heights of Hollywood just as George is crashing down. Ironically, the two of them literally bumped into each other as George was leaving his latest premier. A connection was made, and when Peppy is cast as an extra on George’s next picture, the two of them connect even deeper during a scene where they’re supposed to dance briefly together, but George is infatuated with her, and he can never complete the scene. Later, he has to prevent Zimmer from firing her because of that. Peppy then sneaks in to his dressing room, and pretends that she’s being caressed by his tuxedo until George walks in. Rather than being angry, he tells her that she needs to separate herself from the crowd, and he puts a beauty mark on her face. That seems to get people’s attention because Peppy starts to work her way up the ladder until she gets a starring role in a talkie that will come out the same day as George’s independent feature. Peppy’s film is a smash, and George’s film is a disaster. Peppy embraced talkies and became America’s Sweetheart, and combining the stock market crash with his losses on his picture, George went bust. Doris has also left him, and he’s been kicked out of his house and has had to sell everything off.
But Peppy never forgot about George. She went to see his movie when hardly anyone else did, and she’s always happy to see him during the random times that they run into each other. But the main crux of the second act of The Artist is about George coping with his lost fame and lost fortune. His growth as a character shows him ultimately losing his pride and accepting help from others. After his movie bombs and he loses his fortune, he’s forced to sell all of his memorabilia. He watches the auction as a mysterious man buys up all of this sculptures, paintings, clothes, and furniture. Unbeknownst to him the mysterious man is buying the items on behalf of Peppy. Another scene shows George’s pride get scarred when he’s sitting in a restaurant the next table over from Peppy, who doesn’t see him and is being interviewed by a reporter. She tells the reporter that sound allows actors to act, rather than having someone just mugging for the camera. “Out with the old and in with the new,” she says. This is a blow to George’s pride as well as his self-esteem and he confronts her about it before leaving the restaurant.
After moping around for a while and drinking too much, George falls into a fit of despondency. He goes back to his small apartment and sets all of the reel canisters containing his films on fire. Realizing there’s one he needs to save, he dives in and clutches it in his hands, but the smoke causes him to lose consciousness. We later see that the film is when he and Peppy were dancing. His faithful dog runs and fetches a policeman to the scene, and George is rescued just in time. Peppy sees an article about the fire in the newspaper and has him moved to her home so that he can recover.
George awakens to see that perhaps his luck is turning around and he and Peppy profess their love for each other. She then tells him about a script for him, but he is still too prideful to accept the notion of starring in a talkie. She leaves to go out on a shoot, and George’s former chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who is now employed by Peppy, comes to his bedroom, tosses the script on his bed and warns him about being too prideful. George then spends his free time wandering the home and stumbles upon a room that is filled with his old belongings. Ashamed, George takes off his bandages and leaves them on a table in the foyer before going to his burned out apartment. His pride is now gone, but he feels like he’s lost everything with it.
Meanwhile, Peppy has convinced Zimmer to give George a role in her next picture. She arrives home to see that George is gone and she get in her car and recklessly drives to his apartment, where George sits with a gun in his mouth and his dog furiously pulling on his pants leg. The title card shows a “BANG!” We then see that was because Peppy crashed her car on a tree outside. She runs in and keeps George from doing the unthinkable, and tells him about the role. He doesn’t think that people will want to hear him talk, but he doesn’t have to. The next time we see George and Peppy, they are tap dancing partners, performing a rousing number that has Zimmer jumping out of his chair. The director asks for another take, and George says, “With pleasure.”
After giving this film another look, I realized that it’s better than I initially thought and has a deep and compelling story. It’s very strong thematically, and the driving thematic idea of the story could be summed up in the sentence, “Pride goeth before the fall”. Yes, this is a movie about moving beyond the past and embracing the future, but that sometimes means that you have to humble yourself order to be able to attempt something new. George didn’t take seriously the introduction of sound to movies because he was afraid of it. He had built himself an amazing life through silent pictures, and he didn’t think there was a place for him in films with sound. The story shows him fighting against it, and then giving up before realizing that there can in fact be a place for him without him having to give up his artistic integrity.
I also realize on the second viewing that what I thought on my initial viewing was a dragging story was actually time for character development so that we could see what George was going through. He had been at the very top, and now he was at the very bottom, and Hazanavicius did a great job of showing the pain and confusion and lack of direction that George was now experiencing. This was a great reminder to me that sometimes when it doesn’t look like there’s a lot happening on the screen, there’s actually quite a lot happening in the story and/or with the characters.
Not only does this film have a strong story, but it is primarily shown to us, rather than told to us, since there is no dialogue, save for a few dialogue cards and the last scene. I mentioned before that there are also some great moments ironically where visual cues tell us what we would normally be hearing. One example of that is at the beginning when George Valentin is backstage at the theater that his new film is premiering in. The film ends and he stands there for a moment in anticipation and then snaps to in relief as he clearly hears the audience start to applaud. It’s great visual storytelling that shows us in a dramatic way what we need to know.
This is overall a very enjoyable film that’s worth another look if you haven’t seen it for a while.
Did the Academy get it right?
I won’t say that they got it wrong. I realize I was just espousing how strong the film is, but I’m not sure if it was really worthy of being named Best Picture. I think it was the novelty of it was what won The Artist the Oscar more than the actual quality of the film. Personally my favorite film of 2011 was Moneyball, but I am an admitted baseball movie fan. I also really liked The Descendants and The Help, and probably would have voted for any of those over The Artist. As for the other nominees, I liked Midnight in Paris quite a bit, and while I’m not a huge Woody Allen fan, that is one of my favorite films from him. I also like Hugo a lot, and loved how it seemed that Martin Scorsese stepped way out of his comfort zone, even though he was essentially making a film about cinema, which is right in his wheelhouse. I was disappointed with War Horse. It was essentially a road movie that was episodic and should have been much more dramatic than it was. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a moving film that brought us all back to the days after 9/11 as we were all searching for answers that were difficult to find. All I can say about The Tree of Life is that it was impossible to get through. Overall, The Artist was not my first choice for 2011, but I’m not disappointed that it won, and I wish that it had encouraged more mainstream filmmakers to think more outside the box.