Director/Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
By Marilyn Ferdinand
They’re back again. The creative team behind the successful OSS 117 spy parodies—filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo, and his leading man Jean Dujardin—have turned their talents not only to another subgenre, but to film history itself. The Artist is a backstage Hollywood story made as a black-and-white silent film, complete with title cards and music score. Modern silent films are more numerous than many people think, though The Artist will be a novelty to the majority of people who go to see it. Unfortunately, as a silent-film fan, I found myself quite confused by this film and feel it distorts the record on the transition from silent to sound pictures in a way that further offends John Gilbert, a silents legend who ended up unjustly on Hollywood’s ash heap.
The film begins unlike any real silent film: a spy is shown in extreme close-up being tortured with electroshock treatments by some Russians who want him to spill his secrets. He refuses to talk and is tortured to unconsciousness. Fortunately, the spy’s faithful dog comes to the rescue, the baddies are beaten, and the spy returns to the arms of his lady love. This sequence, the climax of the new George Valentin (Dujardin) film “A Russian Affair,” is intercut with an audience in a large theatre and George and his costar Constance (Missi Pyle) sitting behind the screen waiting to take their bows at this, the film’s premiere. This clever opening signals the modernist sensibilities that will be brought to bear on a film era spanning from 1927 to 1931, from the Roaring Twenties through the 1929 stock market crash and into the Great Depression and the rise of the movie musical.
Following the (silently) thunderous applause of his appreciative audience, George mugs with Dog (Uggi) on stage like the old vaudevillians they must have been, as Constance fumes about not being introduced until the very last moment. George exits the theatre, and one of his fans, while trying to retrieve the autograph book she drops, stumbles into George. He forgives the intrusion, and the young lady, Peppy Miller (Bejo), makes herself an overnight sensation by posing for the newspaper photographers and giving George a kiss that makes it to the front page of Variety. George’s disaffected wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) refuses to believe the innocence of the encounter, particularly when she sees George with Peppy at the studio, where the aspiring starlet has wormed her way into a nonspeaking cameo on George’s new picture. The pair signals their attraction by repeatedly flubbing their brief moment together on camera; studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants to fire her, but George uses his clout to keep her on.
In a classic reversal of fortune, Hazanavicius produces credits for several films showing Peppy moving from the bottom of the list, through the common variant billings of the time (“Pepi”), to top-billed star as the studio switches to all-sound pictures and new faces to usher the new era in. At the same time, George, scoffing at talking pictures, heads toward ruin. He loses his fortune in the stock market crash, his wife leaves him, and the studio drops him like a hot potato. He and Dog move into a small apartment, along with his loyal chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), who works without pay until George fires him for his own good. After George has pawned everything of value and become a full-fledged alcoholic, Peppy rescues him after he has nearly died in a fire of his own making and resurrects his career by turning him into a musical comedy star alongside her. Their final number, a tap dance routine reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” turn in Broadway Melody of 1940, is the only nondream sequence with sound, as the stubborn silent “artist” embraces light entertainment in all-sound pictures.
The character of George is a compilation of classic silents stars, including Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, but he seems most modeled on Greta Garbo’s regular costar John Gilbert. Dujardin’s appearance mimicks Gilbert’s, and George’s reason for refusing to make talkies, “Nobody wants to hear me speak,” alludes to the myth that Gilbert did not make the transition to sound because he had a poor speaking voice. Gilbert also got an assist out of obscurity from Garbo, who insisted that he was the only man she’d play with in Queen Christina (1933), and Gilbert was an alcoholic. However, making George an egoist who declared his own film artistry as the reason to reject sound, not to mention a laughable voice test by Constance a la Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, undercuts the real reasons behind Gilbert’s problems and those of other silents stars—high salaries and more power than the studio bosses cared for them to have. George is reduced to an actor whose pride is his only impediment, and that includes having the hubris to declare himself an artist when Hollywood insists that it will support only happy campers who churn out light entertainment for a downtrodden nation.
Filming The Artist without sound seems a very confused choice to me. The big reveal at the end that George has a French accent would seem to confirm his fear of sound due to his voice, but what exactly does the choice do for the rest of the film? I’m afraid I don’t really see the point as anything other than some high-concept conceit that seems a particular attraction of The Weinstein Company, which picked this film up for American distribution. Is it fun to see modern acting styles done without sound or color, or to pick through the film references placed like Easter eggs throughout the film (e.g., the breakfast table scene between Charles Foster Kane and his wife in Citizen Kane or the verbatim score for Vertigo in the fire sequence)? Honestly, I felt these were cheap attempts to engage my cinephilia instead of giving me a film that was well conceived with a strong point of view.
The area where this film shines is in the incredible talent and likability of Dujardin and Uggi. The pair works very well together, particularly in the gripping scene when George is overcome by smoke in his apartment and Dog barks desperately at him to get up and leave, finally exiting the scene and racing down the street to attract a policeman (Joel Murray) to the conflagration. This scene plays remarkably true to silent film conventions and maintains its own integrity, with the exception of a comic moment when an older woman (Annie O’Donnell) waiting for a bus tells the cop he probably should see what all the fuss is about.
The extremely crisp look of the film gives a hint of what a new nitrate film might have looked like to audiences in the silent era, though even restored films from nitrate we see today don’t look quite this good. In general, the costumes were a treat, but I was a bit disconcerted to see Peppy in full flapper regalia for a 1930s film she was starring in. The Artist was also surprisingly chaste by both 1920s and pre-Code standards; George and Peppy never act on their attraction, making the relationship one of mentor-protégé despite plot developments that assert it should have been more, for example, Peppy buying all of George’s personal effects at auction and saving them in her mansion for a time when he could be reunited with them.
I enjoyed various components of this film and thought the performances were generally quite good, but perhaps I am too much of a silent-film buff to really give it my full endorsement. And if I’m not the target audience for this film, then who is? This talented team should have thought this one through a little further, as I feel there’s a first-rate film in here somewhere straining to come out.