Film Review: The Artist

I’ve watched a few silent movies in my time. Some Buster Keaton for a high school class. One Halloween I rented a copy of The Man Who Laughs from one of Chicago’s art houses, hoping for some old-fashioned spookiness (it didn’t turn out to be so spooky). But the vast, vast majority of films I have watched have not been silent, and this meant that the most striking feature of The Artist, for me, was the novelty of its audio composition. It provoked accompanying musings about the visual differences that came with the silence – the exaggerated facial expressions that the character of Peppy refers to disdainfully as “mugging the camera”, the breaks in action necessary for dialogue to be flashed on the screen, that sort of thing. If what you want is a narrative about a washed-up silent movie start interacting with a young go-getter, might I suggest you check out Sunset Boulevard instead? Don’t watch The Artist for its narrative. This is a film in which content takes a back seat to form.

Dream Sequence

Feathers can roar.
Feathers can roar.

The Artist is an almost silent film. I’m going to give the game away and state up front, the film switches over to (now) conventional audio in its final scene, and that switch is handled pretty well (I say “give the game away” because half the fun of watching The Artist was trying to guess whether the filmmakers were going to use conventional audio at any point, and if so, when they would make the switch. I must sheepishly admit that they kept me guessing right til the end). However, there is one scene in which the creative team decided to have a little fun.

About halfway through the narrative arc, the film’s protagonist, aging silent film star George Valentin, experiences a dream sequence in which the film’s ambient score drops out and, when George knocks over an item on a desk, sound effects occur. George appears both fascinated and terrified by this and begins knocking other items around, creating a cacophony of ordinary sounds… but when George attempts to speak, his voice produces neither sound, nor the on-screen text boxes that have shown up for important dialogue in the film prior to the dream sequence. George’s shock at “suddenly” being mute is extremely well-played, but what I really enjoyed about this dream sequence was the brief window of time in which George experimented with knocking things over on the desk to make noise, before he discovered he was muted. For a delicious instant, everything went very surreal and I wondered if the story was about to take a radical turn toward breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters might display a precocious awareness of their nature as film characters. It felt very Last Action Hero to me. Unfortunately it only lasted for a moment and I was disappointed when I figured out George was in a dream sequence, but it was a pretty fun moment while it lasted.

Authenticity of Setting

The Artist falls flat when it comes to authenticity as a period piece set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A film that does well on this axis, such as Argo, is believable as a slice of history. The Artist doesn’t feel like history; it feels like people from the 21st century putting on a period piece. It feels staged.

I think one of the main reasons I felt this way was how the character of Peppy Miller, the ingenue, was handled. Peppy Miller (played unremarkably by Bérénice Bejo, though given how blandly the character was written Bejo didn’t have a whole lot to work with) does not have the characteristic look of a film star from the late 1920s to early 1930s.

Compare this face...
Compare this face…

The way female beauty is conceptualized in pop culture has shifted over the past 90 years, and while examples of the earlier conceptualization are still hanging around in media, like the afterimage of the sun one gets when one has looked at it and then looked away,

...to this one...
…to this one…
...or this one.
…or this one.

the creators of The Artist decided to take the easy way out and give their viewers a more familiar image of female beauty, with just enough signs from the period (Peppy’s hairstyle, Peppy’s clothes) for the casual viewer to suspend their disbelief. I’m not just talking about Peppy’s eyebrows and makeup. I’m also talking about her body type. The actresses from the 1920s and 1930s did not typically have the 21st-century sculpted body that Bejo displays. Actresses from the era were not chubby by any measure, but they also were not, typically, muscular or toned. They had a softness that Bejo lacks. This discrepancy made it hard for me to believe that someone who looked like Bejo looks now would have been as wildly popular as the character of Peppy supposedly becomes. She would not have fit in with the times and it makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief. By contrast, the character of Constance, played by Missi Pyle, looks very much like a woman of the times.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

I’m not really sure why the creators of The Artist chose the title that they did. The film’s main characters, George Valentin and Peppy Miller, do not come across as artists; they come across as entertainers. They never talk about the art of acting, are never referred to as great actors by other characters, and in the brief sequences that are displayed of their films-within-films, their acting seems thoroughly average. To entertain is not the same thing as to create art. So if we accept that the title of The Artist is a misnomer and that the film is really more about entertainment, the main theme that emerges is the importance, for entertainers, of being relevant. George goes from riches to rags in the matter of a couple of years because he scoffs at his producer’s admonishment that talking pictures are the future. I found it hilariously apt that the solution Peppy turns to in order to save George’s career is the musical dance number, because that is a genre that has also had its day in the sun and is practically never seen these days. I guess the central message of the film is the adage to make hay while the sun shines. If I had known that was the film’s focus, I am not sure I would have picked this one up off the shelf.

The Artist won Best Picture for the Academy Awards in 2012. Either the Academy had slim pickings to choose from, the Academy has poor taste, or the Academy really likes films about Hollywood. Or some combination of the above. Or perhaps there were just no films available in 2012 that starred a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character. I hear those are pretty popular.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

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