The Artist: directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius
“I’m not telling. I won’t talk!” The first title card of The Artist bears these words. By now even those marginally motivated cinephiles would know that The Artist Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film and one of the most lauded films of 2011. Let me give some perspective to the presentation of this bit of dialogue. We’re being introduced to our protagonist, but not to him really – it’s a film within a film we’re seeing – George Valentin’s latest silent film, “A Russian Affair”. Obviously, though, it’s a tongue-in-cheek bit of cuteness from Hazanavicius and a suggestion of what’s to come in the form of Valentin both deliberately on Hazanavicius as a bit of irony and in a more significant way, and one which I think escapes Hazanavicius. For, what The Artist is about is the fall from fame of Valentin – a moviestar whose position is displaced by the advent of talkies in cinema and simultaneously the rise of a young ingénue seemingly ready to take his place as the face of the movie studio he headlines. It’s a concept which has been tried – and tried excellently – in A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and I’m sure a slew others. So, I’m immediately intrigued by what Hazanavicius plans to do with the potential plot using the silent form. For, from the first few moments we realise that Jean Dujardin’s charming yet very exasperating Valentin is as assured of his entitlement to fame as Norma Dresmond and as dismissive of those around him as Norman Maine and my interest is piqued. How does Valentin become worthy of the title “The Artist”, I wonder.
In Young Adult Mavis Gary ends the film the same way she began. That film is a pessimistic outlook on life and how, sometimes, people are shown the light only to retreat and avoid it. It’s the same thing that happens in The Artist, but Hazanavicius stumbles because he doesn’t seem aware of this. For the first third of The Artist I was intrigued because I kept thinking that Valentin would have that epiphany and realise how ungracious he was being. He’d hit the bottom to learn from his state. Then, as Peppy’s star began to rise I thought that Hazanavicius was offering a whimsical presentation of the capricious nature of the film industry. But, neither occurs. Everything which occurs is treated in earnest as if we should accept Valentin’s boorishness as legitimate and true. This doesn’t sully the goodness of Dujardin’s performance but it does leave a sour taste in my mouth in regards to the film’s treatment of women. Penelope Anne Miller’s forgotten wife and her plights are played for mere laughs and conversely Bérénice Bejo’s charm can’t mitigate the flatness of Peppy, who is worse off than George. She enters the film in love with Valentin, and we leave her in the same way. There is shockingly little for her to do in the way of characterisation, and the poor thing comes off seeming somewhat vacuous. She has no qualms about his temperamental nature, it seems, and Hazanavicius gives her no dynamism to play, no tension to get through, which is a shame because Bejo seems impossibly game and more significantly because much of the film sails through like a breeze despite these issues.