The Artist: A Frothy Delight

The Artist is a cinematic meringue so insubstantial that, like the best desserts and the best champagne, it seems to disappear almost as soon as you’ve tasted it.

By now everyone knows the basic outline of the story. George Valentin, a highly successful star of silent films, gives a break to Peppy Miller, an attractive young dancer. With the coming of talkies, the star fades as the ingénue ignites. He is a man of principle who insists on making silent films even as the public clamors for sound. Thing get worse for George as they get better for Peppy. But have no fear. In true Hollywood fashion, all will be well (eventually).

In other words, the plot of The Artist is a fairly fragile thing. If it were a three-dimensional object, it would be a house made of toothpicks. One hard look and it would fall apart. For instance, why does our hero think talkies are such a violation of his principles? And why is he so blind to love? These central problems express the moviemaker’s needs, not the character’s. But actually, it isn’t fair to lean so hard on the fragile structure of the movie or its characterization. The Artist’s touch—from director to actors to sets to almost everything else—is so light that the movie is critic-proof.

Jean Dujardin plays Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy. Their large, expressive features seem just right for a silent movie. Emotions strike their faces like lightning. Every thought comes with a double-take. Every wink jacks open the mouth. Every kiss is flung. The Artist puts us in a world where every time you solve a problem, you snap your fingers. Just like . . . that!

It’s a movie that owes much to the movies of Charlie Chaplin and others from the early days of moviemaking, not only because of the lack of sound but because of the innovative and expressive visuals.

Early in the movie, George and Peppy dance together but on either side of a stage flat that allows each to see only the other’s feet. It’s a delightful moment that might have come straight from a Fred Astaire movie (OK, Astaire didn’t make silent movies, but the visual elements are so strong, he could have).

At one point, Peppy expresses all of her unrequited longing for her benefactor by embracing his coat while it hangs on a rack. The moment is touching and funny at the same time and worthy of Chaplin himself.

The Artist isn’t entirely silent. One scene that uses sound is so striking that it makes you feel what some must have felt at the advent of talkies—that adding sound removed the graceful silence from movies and let in grotesque reality.

The one aspect of the movie that disappoints is the music (the score, not the period music). In itself, it’s striking and memorable, but it draws too much attention to itself and overwhelms the simplicity of the story.

The Artist has been nominated for ten Oscars. How many will it win? None of the top ones, I’m afraid (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress). Yes, I loved it, but movies this light rarely win Oscars. They’re the kind of movies Hollywood nominates in order to show that it has broad taste. Then H-town turns around and gives the awards to the usual suspects. Of course, Slumdog Millionaire did all right, winning ten of its eleven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. But Slumdog Millionaire was a more ambitious and multi-layered movie than The Artist.

The conventional wisdom is that talkies ended many silent movie careers (see Forget the Talkies  for an excellent analysis of the facts and fictions behind this myth). The Artist has me wondering if 3-D will end the careers of some of today’s stars. Think about it. Not every actor can transition to 3-D. What about actors who have no third dimension? Like, for instance, Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves and Kristen Stewart and Megan Fox? I swear, if they turned sideways, they’d disappear!


P.S. If The Artist has whetted your appetite for silent films, The Sleeper urges you to check out one of the many silent film festivals cropping up all over the world, especially the one at Pordenone in Italy.

Long live cinema muto!