I guess I’m supposed to love The Artist. It’s a movie about movies. About silent movies and the transition to sound movies and how that destroyed the lives of the silent film era stars who refused to jump on board with the newfangled invention of talking pictures.
Oh yeah. The Artist is a silent film. But you probably already knew that.
Thing is: I didn’t love it. It’s fine. Cute, even. Jean Dujardin is handsome and charming and oh so expressive (an essential quality to making a silent performance work) as the movie star George Valentin who bucks the talkies by directing himself in one last silent film. That personal project bankrupts Valentin and his world crumbles around him.
Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an adorable actress whose star rises in the age of talkies as Valentin’s falls. Peppy gets her big break because of Valentin, however, and she never forgets that. She’s clearly in love with him, a fact she reveals in a Chaplinesque bit where she convincingly embraces herself with one arm through Valentin’s jacket. She’s one of the few people in the audience when Valentin’s last film opens, while next door her breakout movie debuts to a sell out crowd. Despite her success, she never forgets what Valentin did for her. She supports him from a distance as he spirals further and further into despair. Eventually, he hits rock bottom and she’s there to pick him up again. It’s all very jolly.
The Artist is certainly well made and there are really brilliant scenes interspersed throughout. A particular favorite is a sequence where Valentin’s just been informed of the advent of talkies. Up until that point, the film has played out in completely silent fashion, the only sound that of the (theoretical) orchestra playing along with the images. Valentin looks in the mirror and takes a drink of water. When he sets the glass down, it makes a diegetic sound, the first of the film. Valentin is surprised so he picks up the glass and puts it back down again. Another sound effect. Around him, everything starts to make noise, but when he speaks to himself in the mirror, he’s silent. It’s a wonderfully executed scene and my favorite in the film.
Unfortunately, nothing else really lives up to that moment. The ending eventually comes along and the final sequences inexplicably play to the sounds of Bernard Hermann’s glorious score from Vertigo. Beside the fact that it’s a beautiful piece of music, I can’t really figure out why it’s here. As the film comes to a conclusion with Valentin’s redemption at the hands of Peppy Miller’s persistence, the inevitable happens: silence becomes sound and the transition is complete. Talkies are the new norm and that age of the silent film artist vanishes forever as the credits roll.
Here’s a fun fact: The Artist is the first silent film to be nominated for Best Picture since 1928. That year, The Patriot was nominated in the second annual Academy Awards ceremony. If the Artist wins Best Picture, it’ll only be the second film to do so. The first was Wings in 1927 at the first Academy Awards ceremony.