Saturday, February 04, 2012

Soul of an Artist

I don't know what it says about The Artist (2011, directed by Michel Hazanavicius), but I came out of it wanting to write about Vertigo. I suspect what it says is that The Artist is done in by the touchstones it calls to mind. It's too "meta" for its own good. This is an occupational hazard for films that are deliberately nostalgic for bygone eras. There's nothing wrong with The Artist itself, per se, but its best moments all remind a savvy viewer of other films. This film is (mostly) silent and in black and white, so its audience is likely composed of nothing but savvy viewers. If this is the case, and if the filmmakers are playing to this, then it's not ambitious enough.

The other thought I had while I was walking to my car was that the Weinsteins are very good at dressing up middlebrow entertainments like they're visionary art. Make no mistake, The Artist is cinematic comfort food. It plays with the conventions of cinema in fun, non-threatening ways, but it doesn't really challenge an audience. It has an even tone even when it is plumbing the depths of tragedy. It could use a touch of melodrama, actually. How this is being sold influences my reaction to it, because I was expecting something transcendent, something that redefines cinema by channeling tomorrow through the past, and instead I got a nostalgia piece. Marketers are evil, sometimes, particularly if they work for Bob and Harvey Weinstein. As with last year's Oscar winner, The King's Speech, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the film itself except that the millstone of outsized expectations have been hung around its neck.

The Artist is set in Hollywood at the dawn of sound. Its central character is George Valentin, who seems like a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly, and Ramon Navarro. He's an actor. When the change comes, he doesn't adapt. He clings to silent films like a drowning man clings to a life-preserver. He categorically refuses to talk on screen. Meanwhile, Valentin inadvertently acts as a star maker when he gives starlet Peppy Miller a leg up. He even pencils on her signature beauty mark. Peppy is born for talkies, it seems, and as George's star sets, hers rises. Destitute in the wake of a disastrous final silent film and the 1929 stock market crash, George sells all of his belongings and begins a slow fade into anonymity. Peppy, on the other hand, becomes the "it" girl for the new medium. Peppy hasn't forgotten George. She covertly buys his possessions, and when George burns his bungalow in a fit of self pity, she takes him in and tries to give him the courage to resurrect his career. She believes in him even if he doesn't believe in himself. Fortunately, she has a plan...

In its broad outlines, this movie is a conflation of Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born. George Valentin, played with considerable charm and aplomb by Jean Dujardin, similarly conflates Singin' in the Rain's Don Lockwood with Lena Lamont. Valentin's voice isn't up to the talkies. As revealed in the very last scene, he speaks with a heavy French accent, but the movie has contrived a way around that for Valentin. Valentin's name, too, suggests the great lover, Valentino, though it does nothing with this association. Dujardin, as it turns out, is a natural silent actor, and manages the not inconsiderable feat of holding the screen against his cute dog. Bérénice Bejo, to my mind, is all but eclipsed by Dujardin. She plays Peppy Miller, who one presumes is modeled on Janet Gaynor or Joan Crawford (or probably both of them). Bejo is a fine actor, but I can't help but think that she lacks the "it" quality of a movie star, something that's absolutely necessary to the credibility of her character. She's not bad, but she doesn't hold the screen.

That all said, this is a director's movie, and director Michel Hazanavicius uses the conceit of the movie to play with the conventions of film. This isn't quite a silent movie. There's a striking dream sequence in the middle of the film in which sound plays an integral part, and sound provides the film with it's punch line. This is all fun to watch, but it's all telegraphed to the audience, too. I seriously doubt that anyone in the audience is surprised by the emergence of actual voices at the end of the film. It's inevitable. It has to end that way. Basically, the filmmakers have boxed themselves in; they have to give the audience what the audience wants. The crowd I saw this with stood up and applauded, so I can't argue with the effectiveness of this if the filmmakers' aim was to stroke the good feelings of a mass audience. I don't know, maybe that's an essential part of the film because a black and white silent film would otherwise be consigned to festivals and art houses and nobody would see it.

The need to stroke the good feelings of the audience have another malign effect on the film, though. It never gets dark enough to justify its plot. The main problem with the script is that it's predicated on Valentin's pride. He doesn't have an enemy other than himself and the nature of his character is such that when he finds himself in a downward spiral, the bottom is (relatively) shallow. This makes for poor drama. He has no rival against which to contend. His dark night of the soul is entirely his own making, which mitigates the sympathy it can generate. The film has no agon.

Based on all of this, you might think that I didn't like The Artist, but really, I did. I'm as much a sucker for blatant manipulation as the next person, and I go to popular cinema with the expectation of being manipulated. This film is good at it, and I felt its beats, laughed at its jokes, and took a fair amount of delight in the dance number at the end of the film. The dance number is worth the price of admission, actually, because unlike dance in other contemporary films, the dancers in this film actually have to perform. They're filmed old school, head to toe with minimal edits. The film has its share of magical moments, too, like Peppy's pantomime with George's coat, or any of the dog scenes. And even while I was thinking my film crit thoughts on my way to my car, I was smiling a pretty broad smile in spite of them.


Aubyn said...

Great post, Vulnavia, with much food for thought. I'm inclined to agree with you on most of it. The Artist is a cute, enjoyable film that plays to cinematic nostalgia in a way that doesn't alienate people. I thought Dujardin and Bejo were both great, along with Uggie of course. The film looks beautiful. And certain moments, like Peppy wrapping herself in George's jacket, I just wanted to watch over and over.

Here are the things that nagged me:

*the film's confusion over how to use its supporting cast, most of whom were wasted.

*the lack of realism and consistency in the screenplay. Yes, I know this is a fairytale. But for me, the whole central premise that George is refusing to adapt and is too proud doesn't quite work. When the sound films come, he isn't asked to make one, he's told that this is the future and he's outdated. The film isn't clear on just how it expects him to adapt since there's zero indication that the studios want to continue with him anyway. And call me a crabbed cynic, but I wanted a little more effort and strain in Peppy's rise to the top.

*the cinematic references are often used very clumsily. The use of Vertigo is for me, just jarring while other moments like the lifted breakfast scene from Kane end up telling us nothing about the characters, and just stand as empty flourishes.

Anyway. Enjoyable, flawed film.

Mykal said...

"Bejo is a fine actor, but I can't help but think that she lacks the "it" quality of a movie star, something that's absolutely necessary to the credibility of her character. She's not bad, but she doesn't hold the screen."

Whoa Nelly. I felt the opposite. As my gaze sought her like a heat-seeking missile, I thought she had "it" and then some. Some glow on screen, creating light; obliterating any discussing of "actor." She's one of them.

Laura said...

I echo Mykal on Bejo. She was a definite highlight for me, evocative of a flapper but with a gamine energy all her own.

That said, The Artist is definitely less amazing the more I think about it. What saved it for me was the acting and the general good feel about it; otherwise, I agree that it missed out on a lot of great opportunities and went too far with its homages and sweeping scenes.