With its triumph at the Oscars, “The Artist” has finally capped an incredible year since its premiere last May at the Cannes Film Festival, with multiple awards across the globe from a variety of international journalist and film critics associations. And as everybody knows by now, the collective chorus of commendation relates to the fact that not only is this a silent movie, but one that supposedly recreates what a black-and-white silent movie must have looked like circa 1928, a year retrospectively recognized as the artistic apogee for this phase of Hollywood history, yet ironically, its last stand as well, as the industry was coming to terms with the arrival of sound.
This period of transition, brilliantly evoked, parodied, and memorialized in the classic musical, “Singin’ in the Rain”, was the singularly most convulsive moment ever in the film industry, particularly for many actors and actresses who attained levels of popularity at time when cinema reigned as the vehicle of international mass appeal, only to see their careers collapse overnight over their incapacity to meet the demand to actually speak dialogue, even act, with realistic credibility, and in some cases, without the accents of their native countries.
It is this convulsion that serves as the backdrop for the principle story in “The Artist”, which is in part based on the real-life story of John Gilbert, the handsome matinee idol of the 1920s whose career died in the 1930s, before he himself did of alcoholism in 1938. Yet the story itself is a fairly unimaginative re-use of the plot from the 1937 and 1954 versions of “A Star is Born”, which in turn were derived from a 1932 film, “What Price Hollywood?”. The basic narrative; a young and aspiring actress is discovered by a popular romantic leading man, who falls in love with her and promotes her career, only to see her career rise and his fall, which in turn leads him to drink. The major difference here is that writer and director Michel Hazanavicius has opted for a sentimental “happy” ending, rather than the tragic, yet bittersweet ending of his predecessors, and both the staleness of the story’s premise and the banality of this movie’s conclusion are two main reasons why I regard this film as wildly overrated.
I have other reasons to resist “The Artist”, the most important being that the “salvation” of the fallen idol, Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin, comes not through any change, sacrifice, action, or self-awareness on behalf of Valentin, but rather through the “rescue” of Bérénice Bejo’s Peppy Miller, thus one has the impression that the character has not learned anything about himself, or life in general, and thus the “upbeat” conclusion, though Dujardin and Bejo are electifying in their dance number, rings hollow. The overly cutesy bits involving a loyal lapdog only contribute a forced whimsy to the proceedings.
But why then is everybody else so up on this movie? The novelty factor in the audacity of the concept cannot be discounted. Furthermore, to his credit, Hazanavicius and his production team, including cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, production designer Laurence Bennett, and editor Anne Sophie-Bion have done their homework in recreating the “look” and rhythm of a silent movie. Still, with all the technical virtuosity on display, “The Artist” (the stilted pretentiousness of the title also annoys me) would have been impossibly tedious without the charisma demonstrated by Dujardin and Bejo, both of whom embody the sort of movie magic that legends on the big screen were once made of, and the best I can say about the “The Artist” is that I hope it brings their talents to a wider audience in future projects.
The Artist, written and director by Michel Hazanavicius, with Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, silent, with English subtitles. 100 minutes.
Rick Segreda is the film critic for Ecuador’s La Hora.
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