You'd be forgiven for thinking that all the advertisements for The Artist make it look exclusively like a throwback. That, of course, would be a turn-off for someone who's never seen a silent black-and-white movie or for someone who's prejudiced against films like that because they expect the experience will be monotonous. Thankfully, this cinematic offering doesn't limit itself to just reproducing something similar to what you would've seen in a 1929 film. Despite the era in which it's set, it makes its share of subtle references and notes on life in the 21st century, both inside and outside movie theaters. That it does it with so much style, with a wallop of entertainment, and with two characters with whom we can easily fall in love makes The Artist a joyous, absorbing experience at the movies.
It's 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the most renowned silent movie star in what used to be known as Hollywoodland. Audiences relish going to see films starring George, and the women all howl like schoolgirls at the opportunity of getting even close to having any contact with him. One day, George is outside being interviewed, while a crowd of swooning females is being held back by a guard. And then something happens. It's one of those small, apparently insignificant events that ends up having unexpectedly big consequences for the future of more than one person. One of those swooning girls, Peppy (Bérénice Bejo), drops her bag and moves forward to pick it up, which makes her inadvertently cross over into the area where George is standing. It's a bit of an awkward moment, but it's enough to get the photographers to start taking pictures of George and Peppy together, which then starts making the public (which was as gossip-hungry about celebrities as it is today) start wondering who "that girl" is. The next day, Peppy's visiting the studio at which George is working on a movie, and as one thing leads to another, Peppy starts working her way into the movie industry. And it turns out that she started to do so at a key moment in cinema, because "talkies" are about to start arriving in theaters. This is good news for Peppy, who starts working her way up from minor supporting roles until she becomes a veritable superstar, but bad news for George who's unwilling (and, as we'll find, mortally afraid) to make the transition to "talkies" - since he refuses to do so, his fame starts to wane and he slowly starts fading into oblivion.
But before you start getting the wrong idea, The Artist isn't the story of a girl who took advantage of some guy in order to move up in the world and then just forgot entirely about him. Peppy's not a villain in the least bit. She's a blissful, unassuming sweetheart who never really stops being the fervent fan of George that she was before she entered the movie business. She cares deeply for George. The film makes the infinitely wise decision of not letting this relationship feel too much like a romance, but rather, it's more of a touching, heartwarming friendship that inevitably gets put into jeopardy as a result of the separate paths that George and Peppy each take. One of my favorite moments in the film is one that unfolded very contrary to my expectations. George has insisted on continuing to make silent movies, and after he completes one, he announces the release date, only to shortly find out that, of course, a talkie starting Peppy will be released on the same date. It'd be reasonable to predict how this will all probably unfold: George's film will be met with a near-empty auditorium, while Peppy will be sitting at her new film's premiere, receiving all sorts of accolades from her spectators. However, what ACTUALLY happens makes us realize that The Artist is more interested in capturing the fact that, in spite of all the fame she has attained, Peppy hasn't been able to change her stripes, as she's still utterly fascinated by what George has to offer as an artist and she hasn't stopped caring for him as a human being. No matter what you do for a living, it's hard to hide what you're truly passionate about, because it's what you'll always gravitate towards.
The Artist may be a silent movie and it may be set in the 1930s, but it has a lot to say about modern times. We're living in a time in which technology is having a massive effect on the way we're able to see films, and some hail all these changes as wonderful breakthroughs, and others, like George, see it as a disheartening shift that is taking a beloved art form in an undesirable direction. What I find even more intriguing, though, is the film's sagacious commentary on the nature of celebrity and on what the general public cares about and doesn't care about. With Peppy, we notice how she starts out in minor roles (even with her name misspelled on the credits at first), and we watch as she starts moving upwards in the list of credits until she's the face on the poster of every big movie, and audiences absolutely adore her and flock to see everything she's in. On the other hand, as George's fame starts to fade away, it gets to a point that he can even walk on the street or sit in a movie theater without being recognized by anyone. People seem to have forgotten about him. We may feel discouraged by what the film ultimately tells us about what needs to happen in order for people to suddenly remember a forgotten celebrity like George - but it's the truth. A film like The Artist invites you to relish in all the joy it has to offer, but that doesn't stop it from proffering the bitter reminder that the public eats up tragedies and disasters. Isn't that part of why we love watching movies?
Since my knowledge of silent movies is extremely limited, you won't find in this review a list of all the silent black-and-white films that are probably referenced throughout The Artist. I leave that to professional critics and to film students. I review films as someone with no academic background on movies, but I do it because I like doing it, and I think at least some people may be able to draw something useful from the perspective I have to offer. If you're looking for an academic approach, you should look elsewhere. Now, I do have to say that, in my perhaps uneducated opinion, the weakest aspect of The Artist is that the way in which it presents characters' reactions towards the transition from silents to talkies is awfully simple-minded. A lot of the dialogue that is shown to us on screen in order to let us know the characters' thoughts on the situation is negligible and repetitive: "People wanna hear!" "In with the new out with the old!" Lines like that are repeated in the film more often than necessary. I'm not saying that I expected something ultra-deep from these lines - I understand that it's not easy to pack something too profound into those short statements that are presented on screen. The problem is that these simplistic comments get reiterated over and over again, sometimes to the point that you may be tempted to break the silence and yell "Okay, we get it!". It feels like The Artist could've exhibited a bit more restraint in this department. As the only example I feel I can proffer here, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film that uses the same mechanism of showing lines of dialogue, but it uses this mechanism mainly with the purpose of providing information, rather than to reiterate a character's opinions and emotions more often than necessary - after all, in silent films, one should obviously rely more on the facial expressions for that.
Bérénice Bejo gives a beautiful, luminous performance (one that I'm not so sure can be classified as "supporting"). She truly earns her character's name, but she also consistently feels like a real person whose spirit can break if she experiences a disillusionment or if harm comes in the direction of someone she cares about. I'm overjoyed that the filmmakers chose to go in this direction with this character, rather than the conventional route of making her an initially innocent character who then changes radically and becomes pretentious once she joins the "dark side" and the fame goes to her head. That's been done about a dozen times. Bejo and the filmmakers instead give us someone who retains her blissful sense of innocence, yet this is never something that makes the character or the film feel too light and/or superficial, because she also experiences anguish and frustration at all the right moments. While Bejo's performance spoke much more to me than the one given by her co-star, Jean Dujardin still gives a solid (albeit slightly overrated, in my mind) lead performance, effectively capturing all the emotional ups and downs that George goes through. Oh, and I can't close this paragraph without making note of John Goodman's delightfully gruff performance as the cigar-smoking film director.
Someone will probably write an interesting essay someday discussing The Artist and Hugo as the two 2011 films that bowed down to cinema. There are two fundamental reasons why I find The Artist to be more effective. First, Hugo waits until its second half to reveal its reverential intentions, which isn't something I'd normally have a problem with, except that I felt that, in doing so, it sidelined the film's central story. The Artist is, from beginning to end, a piece of cinema reverence, but the dynamics between George and Peppy are consistently at the heart of it, and never get eschewed. Secondly, Hugo banks too much on the "Aw shucks" factor, which feels like it permeates literally every scene, whereas The Artist, as much as it has its share of cuteness, is still interested in at least taking an indirect look at dark subjects and at imparting criticism.
Looked at superficially, The Artist looks like nothing but a joyous homage to black-and-white silent films, but the film isn't without its dark streaks, which help elevate it significantly. It provides grim commentary on stardom and on the difficulty of making an artistic transition after you've been used to a particular way of pouring your heart and soul into an art form. If the movie had limited itself to looking at George and Peppy separately, merely as a way to observe how one artist rises and the other falls, the film wouldn't have exploited its potential entirely. But since the film chooses not to dispose of Peppy's spirit as a lover of George's films and as someone who dearly wants to be George's friend and to be involved in his life, the relationship between the two characters keeps us fully engaged all the way into the dramatically turbulent climactic scenes. The fact that The Artist is an outwardly jovial film that still carries much in the way of serious undertones is demonstrated perfectly by the film's final sequence, which consists of a musical number that, wonderful and upbeat as it may be, is followed by a denouement that feels resigned more than anything else. It's a film that offers us great joy in the face of disillusionment, which may be exactly what we need today.