Screening Log #49: The Artist (2011)

Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie, John Goodman, and James Cromwell





I’ve mentioned previously how I find this year’s Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards to be fascinatingly, and problematically, backward looking. There is an inherent danger in nostalgia, and the wistful romanticizing of the past is made most easy by difficulties in comprehending and navigating a contemporary situation or dilemma. So Hollywood, perhaps in the first true pangs of the growth of digital distribution, uncertain about the future of the theatre-going film experience, cast their eyes backward, revisit past years with the golden gauzed gaze of “those were the days”.

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a largely silent film, presents itself superficially as a prime vessel for this sort of nostalgic retrospective, and the swell of positive award momentum bears this fact out. The film harkens back to the late 1920s and early 1930s as film began its sonic transition from silent to sound. Centering around silent film star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin, and the effect this transition has on his character, the film takes a rather myopic view, rather than focusing on larger and messier issues that effected movie-making at the time. Valentin exists as a recombinant figure, combining the traits and narratives of other silent film leading men, who other writers can certainly more eloquently elucidate than I. Valentin encounters Peppy Miller, Bérénice Bejo, every inch as plucky as her first name would intimate, by accident after a screening of one of his films. The flash of media curiousity following Miller’s surprise encounter with Valentin, combined with said pluck, her beauty, and drive, quickly earns her a place in the Hollywood system as a montage shows her quickly moving up the cast list from bit player to feature star.

Miller’s ascent in the film world juxtaposes with Valentin’s decline. Denying the advent of film as being meaningful, and overestimating his own appeal, Valentin loses most of his money, and his wife, by personally funding a silent film that opens opposite Peppy’s first big hit, and the stock market crash. Accompanied by his dutiful butler/driver Clifton, James Cromwell, and his precociously adorable dog, Uggie, Valentin’s process of bottoming out is predictable, and the film’s subsequent romantic resolutions, and his return to grace, equally so. But, familiar plot arcs are to be expected in a film less concerned with telling a particular story than telling a story that stands in allegorically for a larger narrative, romanticized by nostalgia.

The conditions are in place for The Artist to be the sort of nostalgia vehicle which feels accessible to a contemporary audience. The strikingly fundamental transition from silent films to “talkies” is analogous, if not directly, to the transition from big budget film productions distributed in theatres to a less centralized mode of digital distribution and acquisition. Valentin’s financial death blow coming via a market crash articulates a second point of contact in contemporary fiduciary skepticisms. At first glance, The Artist seems like a nostalgic film that looks to ennoble the present by valourizing the manners that it echoes the past. However, the portrait is perhaps slightly more critical than this warm interpretation allows.

Hazanavicius’ composes his shots in an obviously classic fashion, gracefully and thoughtfully framed, if perhaps a little too overt in their statements. Again, subtlety is not the currency The Artist looks to in which to traffic. By shooting the film as nearly entirely silent, Hazanavicius places the perspective of the film firmly in Valentin’s situation, and, by proxy, the viewer aligns with him as well. Early in the film, Valentin is shown behind the screen of the theatre as his movie is projected before him, establishing him as, quite literally, the man behind the movies. The film, firmly establishing Valentin as an allegorical figure, representing both the viewer and the film industry, precipitates his own fall through his stubbornness and lack of vision. Valentin’s refusal to adapt for the newly born sound era causes him to lose all that he has worked for. The film’s finale, naturally, restores George to a place of prestige, but not of his agency alone, but, rather, it is the contemporary accommodating his particular talents, rather than his talents winning his stature back.

What results, then, is a film that is at once a broadly charming nostalgia piece with a slightly more subtle warning submerged in its perspectives. The Artist is sharply timely in both content and context, generated in a moment precisely in tune with its idealized version of Hollywood history. One can only hope that contemporary Hollywood apprehends more than the film’s nostalgia and internalizes some aspect of its gentle warning.


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