erik lundegaard

The Artist

The Artist (2011)


“The Artist” is a silent film about the death of silent film. It’s uses old technology to tell a cautionary tale about those who cling to old technology. It’s part “Singin’ in the Rain,” part “A Star is Born,” and resurrects the international language of film—silence—by starring two French actors in a tale of Hollywoodland USA. It uses the era’s aspect ratio (1.33: 1), its opening-credit title graphics (drop shadows), its tendency toward broadness and melodrama. It is beautiful, funny, and tres, tres charmant.

Is it also a cautionary tale of Hollywood today? It reminds us that in the constant battle between technology and personality, technology tends to triumph. I suppose that’s a cautionary tale for all of us.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a hammy but loveable silent film star, who, in 1927, is at the height of his powers. His latest, “A Russian Affair,” is being screened before a rapt audience in Hollywood, and he stands backstage looking resplendent in tuxedo and tails. Afterwards, he hogs the stage, does a soft-shoe number, then introduces his fuming leading lady, Constance (Missi Pyle), only after his leading dog (Uggie). Insatiable, he hangs out on the red-carpet for a post-screening Q&A, where a flapperish fan, and budding actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), gets pushed from behind the ropes and into the limelight. She and Valentin share a moment, which winds up headlining Variety the next day: WHO’S THAT GIRL?

It’s a very “Singin’ in the Rain” set-up: Hammy man, shrewish leading lady, peppy upstart. There’s a premier where the hammy man blocks the shrewish lady from the spotlight only to wind up with the peppy upstart. His next film feels like a virtual remake of the first (“The Dueling Cavalier” follows “The Royal Rascal” in “Singin’”; “A German Affair” follows “A Russian Affair” here), suggesting the mass-produced, disposable quality of the genre. Then talkies come along.

The big difference is whom the peppy upstart threatens. In “Singin’” it’s the leading lady, who, with her high, screechy, ditzy voice, can’t make the transition to talkies. In “The Artist,” for more complicated reasons, it’s the hammy man.

The day after the premier, Peppy winds up on the set of “A German Affair” and meets cute with Valentin a second time. He has to dance with her, briefly, for a dinner party scene, but forgets himself as he begins to fall in love. Later, Peppy winds up in his dressing room, smells his jacket, and does a great bit where, her own hand emerging from his jacket, she makes a pass at herself. At this point he enters the room. Rather than make the pass she wants him to make—and he wants to make—he acts the gentleman (he’s married, you see) and gives her industry advice: “If you want to be an actress,” he says, (or mouths), “you have to have something the others don’t.” Then he draws a mole on her cheek.

Cue montage: her rise from chorus line to maid roles to third-billed star to, finally, a starring role in a talkie called “Beauty Mark.” At the same time, he’s eschewed the talkies (“If that’s the future, you can have it!” he mouths), and leaves his secure position with Kinograph Pictures to independently produce a silent adventure film, “Tears of Love,” which happens to open the same day as “Beauty Mark.” He watches it from the exit row of a near-empty theater. Outside, he’s greeted by long lines waiting to see Peppy Miller’s talkie.

Five things ruin him: “Tears of Love” bombs as the stock market crashes as his wife divorces him. That’s three, and he accepts all of them with something like grace. But now he’s broke. But isn’t he still a star? Couldn’t he make the talkies the studio wants him to make? He could but doesn’t. I guess that’s stubbornness, or ego, which would be the fourth thing. The fifth is booze. He drinks himself into oblivion.

It’s a long decline. Too long, really. He winds up in a second-story walk-up. When he runs out of booze, he pawns his tuxedo. Eventually he auctions off everything. “Congratulations!” the auctioneer tells him. “You’ve got nothing left!” We see him watch the new Peppy Miller talkie, “Guardian Angel,” with the rest of the great unwashed, pass out in a bar from drink, then screen his old films alone in his apartment (footage courtesy of Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Mark of Zorro”). Eventually, enraged at his new station in life, he sets fire to his old films but the smoke quickly suffocates him. It’s up to his faithful dog to run down the street and bark at a cop (Joel Murray) to save him. The headlines the next day read: SILENT FILM STAR SURVIVES FIRE. He’s not even a name now. He’s something from back then.

But he’s more to Peppy, who’s been following him all this time (she bought most of the items at the silent auction), and who brings him to her mansion, which looks a lot like his old mansion. She also pitches a talkie starring the two of them to the studio heads at Kinograph. But his downward spiral isn’t over. When his finds all of his old items in a storage room in her mansion, he cries out, returns to his burned-out walk-up, and puts a gun in his mouth. She, meanwhile, races in her car to get to him. Like the barking dog alerting the cop, it’s a great bit of silent melodrama—the cutting back and forth between the two—but then we read the title card, “BANG!,” and our heart sinks. Really? They’re going to do that? Nope. The bang is her. She’s crashed the car into a tree outside his walk-up. He checks out the noise, their eyes lock, they meet, kiss, etc. She saves him, and, as in “Singin’ in the Rain,” musicals save his career. The End.

As I said, it’s a charming movie. It’s an homage to the silent era—as “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” which starred the same stars, Dujardin and Bejo, and was written and directed by the same writer-director, Michel Hazanavicius (Bejo’s husband, bastard), was a kind of homage to, but more critique of, the early, western-imperialist Bond and OSS 117 movies.

At the same time, “The Artist” is more than mere homage.

One of the things the movie does well is play off the concept of silence. The first words we hear, or see, are Valentin’s from “A Russian Affair.” His character is being tortured by some futuristic gizmo and he declares, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” We’re never sure why Valentin’s wife can’t abide him other than her line, “Why do you refuse to talk?” We’re never sure why he doesn’t make the transition to talkies other than his comment, “No one wants to see me speak.” See me speak. Love that.

Then there’s the dream—perhaps the film’s most memorable scene. After being shown sound, the greatest technological change the movies will ever see—a change so stark that everything up to that point, with the exception of a few comedies, will be relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history—Valentin returns to his dressing room. He drinks from a glass, sets it down. It makes a noise. It startles him, and us, and he tries it again. He hears the clock. He hears his dog. He goes outside. Suddenly everyone and everything in the world is making noise—even a feather landing on the ground—except for him. He’s trapped in silence.

So why doesn’t he talk? The easy explanation occurs near the end, when we finally hear him speak. He says, “With pleasure,” but he says it with Dujardin’s French accent: Wis plezhaire. Some may assume this is why he didn’t leap into talkies. He’s French. Except a French accent was hardly a barrier to success back then. Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier were both big stars in the early days of Hollywood.

Besides, this explanation feels reductive. It makes Valentin’s dilemma small and personal when there’s something truly universal in it. Valentin is a man trapped in old technology. He’s made silent by new technology. We’ve all been there—or will be there. New technology comes along and an entire profession is told, “We don’t care what you have to say anymore.”

Charming? Oui. Homage? Oui. Relevant? Oui aussi. Pour tout le monde.

—January 10, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard