I remember seeing the trailer for The Artist and thought it looked interesting but, after reading a disparaging review on it, I felt a tad leery of whether or not the movie would be of any quality. It seemed to be getting some really positive reviews in general but sometimes films aren’t always judged on how effective they are but merely through the style in which they choose to tell a story. Is it a good silent film or are people latching onto it because it’s something different than what we are used to at the theater? Style over substance can sometimes be a detriment to a movie but I think The Artist goes beyond style and revels in something else.. the magic of the movies.
I’ll be the first to admit that the story of The Artist is a tad derivative but what makes it standout is how effectively it is told through visuals and music. It definitely is a stylized movie but it’s a movie that harkens back to the end of the silent film era and how drastically the change to talkies came. The silent film became an old toy, quickly discarded for the shinier and newer movies with sound. This is reflected in the main character’s predicament in the film. George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, finds himself out of work and broke when he’s not deemed valuable to audiences anymore after he, and other silent film stars, are dumped in favor of fresh young actors whose voices will define the next evolution of film. He starts out as a man with a big ego, one full of vanity and pride, and becomes lost and abandoned. He hits bottom and can’t find a source of redemption, due in part to his overly prideful nature. Having been told that silent film has been immediately abandoned for talkie pictures, Valentin sets out to make a silent film financed out of his own pocket to prove that silent film is still just as powerful as films with sound. However, he finds the quality of his film doesn’t matter, it’s dismissed because his medium, silent film, is now old hat.
There is a scene in the film where Valentin is watching himself up on the silver screen disappearing into quick sand and, with his new found status in life, his self-worth is disappearing as well. I think one of the things with any artist, whether it be an actor, director, writer, etc., is that something you create, and that you believe in, is a reflection of you. There is something about creating something and putting it out there for the world to see. You want it to succeed because your work is an extension of you. Its positive reception by an audience can feel like an affirmation of you as a person. If they devalue your creation, it’s like a punch to the gut and can hit you pretty personally, especially if it’s something that gives you purpose. That scene was the point where I connected to the character out of empathy for having lost his purpose.
Besides Valentin, the character of Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, plays a large role in the film as the woman that falls for Valentin from very early on. Her love for Valentin causes her to reach out to help him as much as she can throughout the film. Her character has an infectiously fun personality and her rise to stardom definitely wasn’t unwarranted. Bejo was exceptional in the film, as was Dujardin, and she definitely lit up the screen each time she was present. I think the acting here is really strong and, while evocative of the silent film era, it’s a mix of old and new styles. I sometimes don’t connect with much older films as much due to the acting feeling heightened, much like how acting in theater is different than in film; but I felt that in The Artist, the heightened acting was accentuated with some very real and naturalistic performances.
The film itself is well directed and beautifully shot in black and white. So many visuals in the movie really helped sell the emotion of any particular scene that it makes me angry that we don’t see more black and white films. It is a highly effective medium that is seriously underused. The music perfectly accentuates each scene ranging from a silly playful tone to that of great despair. One other small touch that I appreciated was the aspect ratio of the film. It was shot in 1.37:1 ratio (not widescreen) which is how they would have shot it back in the late 20s/early 30s, though there were a few widescreen movies then. It wasn’t until the 1950s that movies changed to the widescreen format in order to draw people back into the theater after television (which used 1.33:1 ratio) lowered attendance.
The Artist is a movie that feels so entrenched in the love of cinema, much like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was. Someone I saw it with wasn’t as impressed with the movie as I was and said it was more an exercise in mimicry of the silent film than anything else. But to that I say we mimic the things we love and I think Michel Hazanavicius, the writer/director, really loves silent film. To me, his love for silent film is so prevalent throughout the film that now he has me wanting to be more open to watching older silent movies. When I saw The Muppets, I felt at times I was watching a movie influenced by old Hollywood with its musical staging and dance numbers, and The Artist does the same for me. The final dance number at the end of the movie was just really fun to watch and the performers looked like they were having a blast doing it.
I know most people today would hear the terms “black and white” and “silent film” and run in the opposite direction but I really encourage giving a film like this a shot. I don’t expect you to love it like I did, though I truly hope you do. [If I had seen The Artist before I made my Top 15 Films of 2011 list, the film would have easily made it into the top 10.] I’m in love with film and its power, I always have been, and The Artist is a fine example of how a movie can affect you greatly on an emotional level. It reminds me why I love film and how the magic of the movies can captivate audiences, even without spoken word.