The Artist is a work of technical brilliance, cleverly countercultural as a silent black-and-white film being released in a world of 3D and IMAX. It is a film that will charm and woo you, much like its central character, silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). It will make you laugh, might make you cry, but certainly will keep you entertained. And if entertainment is all you want, The Artist will certainly oblige. Call me insatiable, but I want more than entertainment. I want to be both dazzled and inspired, charmed and challenged, experiencing both woo and wonderment.
Set in the late 1920s during the climax of the silent film era, the story follows the fall of Valentin and the rise of young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) as their movie careers briefly intersect. Valentin is the star of the moment, with a winsome smile and playful antics that capture audiences’ hearts. His little Jack Russell terrier sometimes nearly steals the show with his canine capabilities, but Valentin is always hoarding the spotlight. A chance meeting between Peppy and George lands her a role as an extra in his next film, leading to an infatuation that is clearly captured in their longing gazes into each others’ eyes.
When the talking pictures begin to roll out, Valentin refuses to jump on board. “If that’s the future, it’s not for me,” he scoffs as he walks out of his producer’s office. He finances his own silent film, pouring all of his savings into a lost cause. Meanwhile, Miller becomes the new young heartthrob of Hollywood, slowly working her way into larger roles. The onset of the talking movies makes her a star; she is simply delightful. Her first big film debut is released the same day as Valentin’s silent opus. You already know which one the audiences want to see. Peppy continues her upward climb; Valentin sinks lower.
Valentin continues into a downward spiral, destroying his marriage, his relationships with anyone close to him, isolating himself in a dingy apartment and drinking his sorrows away. The film wants us to feel a deep sense of sympathy and pity for him. After all, he has already charmed us with his dashing looks and enormous smile. But the more I reflect, the more I find myself lacking in pity for such a man. His downfall is his pride and arrogance, and no smile can ultimately cover that up. Self-glorification ultimately leads to isolation and destruction, a lesson Valentin embodies. Miller continues to show him pity, reaching out to him throughout the film, only to be rejected due to Valentin’s ego. Is Valentin worthy of grace? He certainly needs it, as do we all. But I wonder if he’s willing to even accept its free gift, to experience the grace we all need. The Hollywood lights in his eyes blind him to the redemption he desperately needs.
If The Artist is a celebration of the early days of cinema, it fails to impress me with the character of Valentin. He is selfish and distraught, but he isn’t broken by his fall. He continues to refuse to admit his own fallacies. Consider another recent film that celebrates the silent film era: Hugo. Georges Melies was also a star once, creating imaginative and fantastic films, only to be ruined by the onset of the talking film and financial problems. He is a bitter and broken old man, but his brokenness means he is not beyond redemption. As far as I can tell, Valentin never breaks. He finally allows someone else to pick him up–Peppy, with her strange commitment to such a man–but by the film’s conclusion, his only sign of redemption is that smile of his. As critic Jeffrey Overstreet puts it, “You may smile and smile, and be a villain.”
The Artist is delightful fun, but it failed to satisfy my longing for something more, something meaningful, something transcendent. There are some wonderful scenes (a brief dance shared by George and Peppy must be retaken repeatedly as he continually is distracted by her beauty; the terrier attempting to save George from a fire; the brief moments when sound is actually used in a silent film), and it is a charming film. It could charm us all on its way to the Academy Awards.