When a film wins an Oscar, it’s always interesting to see whether it still holds up years later. I’ve seen this film about five times now, so in my book – yes it does!
The Artist follows the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star riding off the success of his fame. A chance encounter at a movie premiere with a dancer, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) inspires her to take a chance in the movie business. When talking pictures arrives, both George and Peppy experience contrasting fortunes in their careers.
There’s something infectious about The Artist. When you’ve seen enough average movies to last a lifetime, seeing something like this feels unique and worthwhile. The comparisons between The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain are inevitable. It captures the feel good spirit of the 1952 musical classic whilst being bold enough to stamp its own authority. Make no mistake – The Artist is not a gimmick. It would be so easy to get the concept wrong, thinking it’s overacting with a couple of title cards inserted throughout the film. Not at all. The Artist illustrates how dramatic and skilful a performance can be. The experience can be as powerful as any film with dialogue. It respects the timeframe it’s based on, nostalgically channelling a forgotten past in Hollywood history. It’s also displayed in a 4:3 aspect ratio with its black and white pictures adding to the authenticity of the film. But most importantly, it’s a charming, witty, and an insightful look at Hollywood stardom.
What I love about The Artist is that exploration of those themes and the two main leads are outstanding in bringing that to fruition, exhibiting the contrast with fame and fortune.
In the beginning, we see George Valentin showing off his comedic confidence and exuberance, showboating to the crowd at the premiere of his latest film. He’s at the top of his game. Peppy Miller, a dancer and aspiring star, hopes to one day fulfil her dreams in the movie business. Meeting George was the best thing for her as he provides her with the confidence and the tools to make it in Hollywood. Quickly a mutual and natural love develops between the two despite George being married.
However, nothing lasts forever in Hollywood and George Valentin is a prime example of that. When the talkies arrived, the pressure and the demands became paramount for the studios. Both cinemas and the studios had to quickly embrace the new technology. Their film stars had to adapt.
If anything, the only reason why George doesn’t make the transition to the talkies is because of his pride and stubbornness. It’s a complete opposite of Don Lockwood’s attitude in Singin’ in the Rain. When shown the screen test of a talkie, George reacts by laughing, thinking it’s a joke and it wouldn’t last. But that naivety is what cost him. George loses his job at the studio and Peppy becomes the new star, taking advantage of the new medium with her beautiful looks and charming persona that would attract cinema-goers. She does get caught up in the publicity but true to her character, she never forgets what George did for her and tries to use her fame and fortune to preserve George’s legacy.
George’s attitude is not uncommon as it represented the unknown for a lot of actors during that period, not really sure what or how to adapt to the new technology. This fear of the unknown is brilliantly demonstrated in one dream sequence where George starts to hear sound for the first time – dropping the glass on a table or hearing laughter close by all feeds into his fearful psyche. It’s easy to look back at this period with confidence because hindsight is a beautiful thing. It wasn’t obvious that sound would have an everlasting impact as it is today. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin carried his beloved silent movies (and his famous tramp look) right into the 1930s until he made the conscious decision and adapted. But the fictional character of George Valentin is not a Charlie Chaplin figure and Hollywood was just as unforgiving back then as it is today.
The film quickly emphasizes the “out with the old, in with the new” mantra. This phrase naturally hurts George, especially when he overhears the words coming out from Peppy’s mouth during a radio interview. He does try to show some artistic defiance by making his own film, to prove that he was still a big name attraction and talkies was just a fad. However the movie flops and leaves him penniless, eventually forcing him to sell his house and his personal items. There’s a brilliantly illustrated scene where George watches his self made film at the cinema and he watches his on-screen character sink into the sand – then the film ends. It’s the sad realisation for George that despite his abundance of talent, he is slowly becoming irrelevant and his frustrations dictate his darker and vulnerable personality from that moment onwards.
George’s story is as familiar as actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and even Mary Pickford – stars who dominated the silent movie period but saw their careers decline after the talkies were introduced. It’s because of this story that makes The Artist such an engaging and relevant watch and a fitting tribute to those forgotten stars.
Like Singin’ in the Rain, it romanticises the dancing providing a positive avenue for George to kickstart his career again. It’s an important factor because it’s George finally coming to terms with the new medium. He is able to showcase his talent with the same bravado as he would have demonstrated in a silent film. In Peppy, he has someone who genuinely cares, often looking out for him when others were quick to abandon him. Personality wise they are opposites, but their instant yet infectious chemistry is undeniable and the two leads are brilliant for conveying that emotion with little dialogue. They are essentially the heart of the film, providing the audience that grounded element to really appreciate their subtle attitudes. And let’s not forget Uggie the dog with its cute yet adorable personality.
With strong competition during its initial release, it’s amazing that after about five watches I still get the same feeling. It’s not a hard film to watch and yes it has its dark moments but there is a resounding positivity that surrounds it.
While Singin’ in the Rain will always remain my favourite musical ever, The Artist is a different experience all together – one that may surprise you if you give it a chance.