I’m not sure why it’s called The Artist. Jean Dujardin is brilliantly charming and masterfully expressive as the silent movie star, George Valentin, whose popularity is declining as talking pictures take over the movie industry, but he is more of a showman, an entertainer, than anything else. When his producer (John Goodman) explains to him that the public wants fresh faces in the talkies, George declares that he’ll make great silent movies without him then, but we don’t believe him. George’s comeback film is both a commercial and artistic flop. Even at the end, George proves his talent with a great tap-dance routine, not a moving dramatic performance.
Similarly, the film is primarily great entertainment. It is certainly well-made. The performances are all good: Dujardin carries the film, Bérénice Bejo is exceptionally vivacious as the upstart Peppy Miller, and John Goodman and James Cromwell both turn in solid supporting performances. Uggie the dog is also great, but that’s my point. The film spends more time showing the dog and Dujardin’s eyebrows than anything else.
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius could have pushed the film in several directions in order to make it also deep, but he never takes that bold step. George’s pride never becomes hubris—he remains pleasantly egotistical—and therefore his dramatic arc is rather modest. His pit of despair is fairly shallow. Likewise, Peppy’s desire to rehabilitate—in other words, to control—George borders on being creepy (particularly in a scene involving stored furniture), but she is never remotely sinister. Is it wrong of me to want the darkness of Sunset Boulevard, the tragedy of Citizen Kane?
Perhaps I miss the point. This is comedy not tragedy. Perhaps it is called The Artist because crafting such crowd-pleasing entertainment is an art. Few films affect the emotions, please the eye, and interest the mind equally, and Hazanavicius’ bold step is that he does so in—a silent film! The Artist is proof that the old Hollywood methods still work, and it has fun with those methods in an affectionate, smart, and sly way. The Golden Age of silent film in Hollywood achieved a kind of perfection, and this film duplicates much of that age’s achievement.
It is also important to ask: could Hollywood have made a less smug movie about Hollywood? I doubt it. This is the film’s extra gift to us. The Artist is a celebration of classical Hollywood without being a self-congratulatory pat on Hollywood’s back. American filmmakers have crafted many paeans to Hollywood’s gilded past; they have also excoriated the industry. With The Artist, French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has duplicated some of the magic. Well done!
8 out of 10
The Artist (France/Belgium, 2011)
Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell.