Michael Hazanavicius’ supremely winning The Artist, a film that sounds like a cross between Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, evokes the cinematic period of transition between the silent era and the dreaded “talkies”. Here, though, the result is itself a silent movie, with crisp, eye-popping black and white cinematography and the occasional title card to keep things honest. But it’s more than an immersion in nostalgia (no fondness for “the good old days” is assumed); it’s a rare tribute to a lost medium whose time has, thankfully, passed. Without any sense that Hollywood turned an unfortunate corner once it insisted that its movie characters speak to audiences, The Artist, via the story of silent star George Valentin (Cannes’ Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) suggests that the entertainment of its day – then and now – holds currency and the ability to captivate, but as a fleeting craft, it need not last beyond its own brief time in the sun. Obvious, yes, but no one’s looking back. It’s why terms like “dated” don’t seem to matter when one considers that at bottom, they help us gain insight into the time period on display and, more importantly, what had the power to move audiences. We no longer want our motion pictures in quite this way, but that’s more a testament to our evolving humanity than any sign of cultural decay. People like George are left behind, but not much else is.
Valentin is a star, an action hero renegade with charm to burn, and his public appearances command huge crowds and adoring press. All of his films are by-the-numbers trash, of course, but he inhabits them with grace and charisma, lending their mass appeal a singular touch (few are as deadly with an arched eyebrow). Once the age of talk begins – represented here by new sensation Peppy Miller (her meteoric rise is a well-played showbiz cliché) – Valentin is pushed aside with brutal disregard, but how could it be otherwise? We care for him, of course, because it’s instinctive to the human animal to empathize with those for whom better days are not ahead, but Peppy is no villain. She is but the next stage of development, and she too will eventually find a hollow conclusion to her pursuits. It’s to the film’s credit that Peppy is not demonized as an opportunist, nor is she without talent, and deep down, it’s likely that Valentin agrees. Predictably, his gut reaction is to insist that the silent era is not yet over (he pours all of his resources into a ridiculous epic entitled Tears of Love), and he smugly declares, “I am an artist! I am not a puppet!” Is he right? Can a peddler of the formulaic be an artist? And can one ever hope to aspire to such lofty pursuits if one’s craft does not survive the time in which it is created?
Thankfully, The Artist comes down firmly on the side of the affirmative, insisting that the act of creation, for good or ill, need not last throughout the ages. If tradition is the illusion of permanence, permanence itself is the illusion of value, as anyone can speak to who has watched with disgust as great thinkers and talents have disappeared into the ether in favor of hacks with great PR machines. We are wrong to assume that if it’s still around after 300 years, it must always be good, and we are just as incorrect to argue that absence connotes a much-deserved burial. So yes, Valentin was and is an artist; our judgment of him, then, is only a matter of degree. His star may not shine as brightly as, say, Peppy’s, but as their final dance demonstrates, there’s room enough on stage for both. The Artist is clever, wise, and spirited (look for a truly awesome dream sequence), and despite hanging on a bit too long (a few redundancies creep in during the last 15 minutes), it transcends its gimmick to become a moving ode to everyone who straps on a pair of shoes for our amusement. The opening night crowd (ours was the first in the United States to see it) seemed to agree, granting the closing credits a roar we haven’t heard in years. Keep an eye out for this little gem, and don’t be surprised when it becomes the first silent movie to be nominated for an Oscar in over eighty years.