The Artist

Count me a Peppy Miller groupie

I want to be brief this time, because I want you to experience The Artist with a clear mind.  In fact, do me a favor and see it before you read this.

Michel Hazanavicius’ film is a silent, black-and-white labor of love featuring French actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who play a silent film star and a rising Hollywood actress, respectively.  The story follows George Valentin (Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo), with the former’s career in steep decline after the “talkies” become popular in the late 1920’s.  Peppy, however, goes from being a Valentin groupie to an even bigger film star than he, albeit with a bit of his guidance.

Dujardin has been nominated for and won plenty of awards for his role as Valentin, but to be honest, it’s Bejo who steals the show here.  Watch her dance, examine the subtle ways in which Peppy’s character changes between when she’s acting in the films-within-films and when she’s being herself, experience her knowing eyes.  She’s a star.  In many ways, Peppy is also the rags-to-riches hero of the film, taking care of Valentin when no one else cares, and earning everything she gets, despite the fact that much of her story is “montage-y”.  Thankfully, Bejo has also been nominated for plenty of awards, and with any luck, she’ll soon be known for more than A Knight’s Tale.  Dujardin, while deserving every award he receives, keeps Valentin hammy throughout the film, and while you can chalk it up to Valentin becoming so self-absorbed that his film characters have melted into his personality, it becomes a bit distracting, almost as though we’re watching a parody of a silent film, at times (it’s also hard to ignore when you’re watching a silent film whose story revolves around silent films).

The film begins to stumble when it tries to complicate its characters.  For instance, why did Valentin have to be married in the beginning of the film?  His mistreatment of his wife and eventual divorce set up plenty of dramatic conflict, but virtually no payback comes from this later.  The only conflict it creates is whether to root for Valentin or not – Dujardin plays him sympathetically, but is the character himself really a good guy?  Going after younger girls when he’s already married, becoming the embodiment of vanity – sure, the idea is that he gets over himself later, but this would have been more effective had he been a bachelor.

John Goodman appears in the film as Al Zimmer, the boss of Kinograph Studios, and his broad facial expressions lend themselves well to the silent film.  James Cromwell plays Clifton, Valentin’s valet, and Malcolm McDowell has a walk-on role as a character simply known as the Butler.  It’s a great cast in a wildly ambitious project, and perhaps the saddest thing about the film is that there likely won’t ever be another like it: The Artist is a period piece imitating an art form that no longer exists.

A note on the period piece, in part brought to my attention by my filmgoing partner over dinner: the film is incredibly true to the time period, but it was a time period when all of the attention was on white men (not to say that most of it isn’t still).  Peppy comes a long way in the film, and so on, but Valentin is the central figure.  My argument was that the film is aware of its setting and gender/race roles, and that watching it in 2011, we watch it through a certain lens: this is how it was, not how it is, and this knowledge enables innocent enjoyment of a fun, smile-laden, musical romp like The Artist.  But are we all so self-aware?  Does the remaking of period pieces like this perpetuate the gender/race problems of former eras, and continue to make them “okay” simply because we think we may, as a culture, have grown past them?  Something to consider.

To end it on a lighter note, The Artist is a wonderful film, and will most likely win Best Picture at the Oscars.  While not the best film of the year, it’s one of the most historically significant and certainly the most ambitious overall (tightly squeezing past My Week With Marilyn).  May the careers of these new silent film actors continue to flourish even when they once again appear in the talkies.

The Artist (2011); written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo

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