2011 // France // Michel Hazanavicius // November 10, 2011 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
The Artist is enamored with the glamour and thrills of cinema’s silent era and, to an extent, of the early Golden Age that followed it. The film plainly expects that the viewer will find its deliberately anachronistic evocation of this period to be endearing. And, truth be told, it’s challenging to actively dislike a feature as wistful and fluffy as writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’ shamelessly nostalgic film. In it, he spins the entwined tales of dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and newly-minted It-Girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the latter ascending just as the former is fading away. Beyond presenting the film in black-and-white with era-appropriate intertitles, orchestral score, and 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Hazanavicius employs a plethora of touches to recall a time when Hollywood studios first began to embrace sound technology. These touches include not only formal flourishes such as filter effects and cranked-up frame rates in some scenes, but also pointedly creaky archetypes and visual gags. There’s an artistic conservatism to the use of these stylistic elements that isn’t found in the contemporary silent works of Guy Maddin, but they serve their purpose here.
Dujardin, who has previously collaborated with Hazanavicius as the titular, clueless secret agent in the director’s OSS 17 spy satires, channels Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Errol Flynn while adding a marvelous slathering of vintage comic sensibility. He’s a pleasure to watch, as is the spritely Bejo, who blends Rebecca Hall’s blinding smile and willowy profile with the cheekiness of a Depression-era film damsel. Inasmuch as the story has a conflict, it hinges on Valentin’s sudden and demeaning exile from Hollywood due to his prideful refusal to make talkies. Hazanavicius portrays the transition from silent to sound as a slow-motion tragedy, and Valentin’s fall as pitiable. The story necessarily recalls Singin' in the Rain, if it were shot through with dark Looney Tunes seizures. (Indeed, one nightmare sequence seems plucked from the feverish experiences of Elmer Fudd or Daffy Duck.) The film serves in part as a facile criticism of show business’ slavish devotion to lowbrow tastes and its pitiless penchant for stampeding off in search of the Next Big Thing. The film underlines that criticism with its old school stylings—What could be more underground in 2011 than a silent film?—but its message lacks bite.
Eventually, Valentin’s downward spiral into alcoholism and suicidal despair (hi-larious!) is suddenly reversed in a manner that becomes more head-scratching the longer one dwells on it. The film is so attached to its protagonist (and Dujardin such a perfect charming rascal) that once Valentin’s problems are resolved, all seems right in the world. When the sour so abruptly turns sweet in this manner, however, one can’t help but feel a little cheated. There's a narrative sloppiness to the final act, a defect that points to the broader lack of diligence in the construction of the film. Unlike Charles Chaplin’s Limelight, with which it shares some narrative and thematic features, The Artist isn’t so much cloying as it is ramshackle and crudely considered. Hazanavicius blends together cartoonish tropes, lively dance numbers, restrained slapstick, and knowingly purple melodrama. Each component can be (and often is) engaging on its own, but the whole never seems to coalesce into a clear statement or point of view. Then again, perhaps a point of view isn’t necessary in a film so besotted with ephemeral pleasures.