Review: ‘The Artist’

‘The Artist feels like a classic film every step of the way, and probably is a little bit of a classic as a result.’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

In a weird bit of Hollywood synergy, The Artist, a silent film about the silent film era, comes out the same weekend as Hugo, a 3D film about a silent filmmaker. (Come to think of it, Three Amigos! just got re-released this week as well, and that was based on silent movies too.) But whereas Hugo tries to trick children into loving old movies using all the contemporary tricks at Martin Scorsese’s disposal, Michel Hazanavicius’s Cannes festival favorite is thoroughly committed to the old school techniques of the era, wisely surmising that a movie about silent movies probably shouldn’t be shot on digital stock, or have an overwhelming use of Steadicam photography. The Artist feels like a classic film every step of the way, and probably is a little bit of a classic as a result. If it had a little bit more to say, I could have easily taken the “little bit” out of that last statement.

Hazanavicius reunites here with his OSS 117 lead actor Jean Dujardin, who stars in The Artist as a silent film star who proudly defies the march of progress – in this case synch-sound films – and pays dearly for his arrogance. Dujardin looks an awful lot like Gene Kelly, and the similarities to Singin’ in the Rain don’t end there. By setting his film during the conversion from silent to talking pictures, focusing his tale on a struggling former star’s relationship with a young ingénue and indulging in a few other plot points which I won’t give away because they’re right at the end, The Artist feels like familiar territory. It works as a mostly silent film – there’s a surprisingly eerie moment when foley is introduced to a deeply unsettled Dujardin’s hushed world – but not just from a technical perspective. Aside from an increasingly modern sensibility that progress must be embraced despite romantic affection for “the old ways,” kind of like Moneyball, Hazanavicius has crafted a film with a broad, tragic personal story arc that would feel totally suited to a double feature with Murnau’s The Last Laugh.

Beyond its love story and backstage shenanigans, The Artist is a story about pride. Dujardin’s character, George Valentin (who seems to be based on actor William Powell, from his moustache to his precocious Jack Russell terrier sidekick), bets his entire fortune on talking pictures being a gimmick. He invests all his own money in a grand silent adventure that’s summarily ignored by audiences in favor of a talking comedy starring young starlet Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo. Dujardin gave Miller her big break as a featured extra in one of his more successful silent films, but now that the worm has turned he’s completely unwilling to accept charity from Peppy or anyone else. Valentin’s manservant Clifton, played by James Cromwell, stays with the hero until Valentin realizes that he hasn’t paid for Clifton’s services in a year, leading to a sad, protracted farewell. Valentin says he wants Clifton to get a better job, but we get the impression that it’s a matter of ego. Clifton has become the caretaker, so Clifton has to go.

With his wife gone (played by Penelope Ann Miller as an apt mélange of Citizen Kane stars Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore), Valentin is left alone to his own self-destructive devices. We know that Peppy can save him, and she tries valiantly to do so, but it all amounts to an almost Affair to Remember-like duel of wills, and man, The Artist does seem to have a lot of inspirations, doesn’t it? The film works perfectly well on its own, and you’ll be wringing your hands in the hopes that everything works out okay for our defiant hero, but it’s so steeped in the familiar that it never steps out on its own. It’s a beautiful homage and a powerful melodrama, and it’s fantastically acted and directed, but The Artist doesn’t feel like its own entity. It’s happy to wallow in the conventions of classics that came before it, and we’re happy to wallow right with it, but the potential to become something more eludes it. It’s a little bit of a classic. Pity it wasn’t more.