The following critique is the work of long-term Boomtown Rap commenter Karen, who describes herself as a “cinema lover and reading junkie”. Karen’s astute and often challenging remarks and observations in response to my reviews have kept me on my toes as a critic. It recently occurred to me to ask her to consider doing some reviewing in her own right. She graciously agreed.
There’s a scene early in The Artist that exemplifies its themes and charms us at once: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the silent movie idol, playing the lead in one of a string of genre dramas (A Russian Affair, A German Affair), must cross a dance floor en route to a meeting with an army officer. Through take after take, he prepares his face for derring-do, complete with narrowed eyes, and seeks his rendezvous. But he bumps into our heroine, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an extra in this film-within-a-film, and must dance with her briefly. Each time, the two leads, feeling a mutual fascination, dance too long, or get the giggles, and the scene needs to be reshot. Watching these actors playing characters playing characters is not only a delight – it’s also a précis of how acting style has evolved since the filmmaking business was a pup.
George’s methods are straight out of vaudeville, and with sound technology emerging in the late 20s, filmmakers are looking for more subtlety and less mugging for the camera, as Peppy herself explicitly says in an interview as her career takes off.
There’s a lot to admire and like in this film. It’s a classy piece of work, and while some film-goers have actually walked out when they realised it was a silent movie, plenty will stay to enjoy (and in the case of true cinephiles, notice) the camera work, lighting effects, costuming and set decoration, all of which are true to the period.
The casting is brilliant: Dujardin has suave, manly good looks, and Bejo is perky, cute and adorable as the by-name-and-nature Peppy. Even the minor characters have that 20s look about them: bouquets to the costume, hair and makeup departments. There are cleverly set up scenes too, that act as metaphors for what is happening: George is going downstairs, while Peppy’s going up; George even sinks in quicksand.
Dujardin and Bejo as George and Peppy
If you’re sensing a “but…”, you’re right. This stylishly told tale of changing technology, a man’s pride and refusal to change, and a sassy “it” girl making good is, in the end, a melodrama – or, since it’s also funny, a melodramedy. The humour ameliorates the melodrama somewhat, as it often gives the nod to the audience with its subversive take: for example, George’s disaffected wife whiles away the hours (beautifully dressed, in their palatial house) drawing comic moustaches and blackening teeth on his publicity photographs; and a title card from George’s last-ditch silent movie has his dying words to his female lead unexpectedly as “I never loved you!”
There’s more subversion of the genre in its narrative: this time it’s the girl who must go to the rescue of the male lead, though she does it in typically careering-automobile fashion. And when the fabulous sidekick dog (unnamed in the film, Uggie in real life) scampers off for help, the policeman he tries to communicate with is not inclined to take any notice whatsoever, till a female bystander urges him to respond.
The music underscores (oops!) the melodrama, though, in a most unsubtle way, and a brilliant sequence where George dreams of hearing ambient noise (the sound of a glass being placed on a table, a telephone ringing) only made me realise how much I like – and missed in The Artist – a good varied sound track.
I have another reservation that’s thematically more important. The ending, which I won’t give away, makes George’s reluctance to embrace the new technology entirely explicable and understandable. No character makes mention of what is revealed to us, and yet it is quite material to the issue; it’s a fact deliberately withheld to enable the comic sting, while we believe it’s George’s pride and aesthetic that have misled him to ruin.
These are minor quibbles though, about a work that so brilliantly realises director Michel Hazanavicius’s love for cinema history. His film about filmmaking, with its light touch, lets the audience go behind the scenes and share the magic he obviously feels. That director at the end who is so mesmerised he forgets to call “Cut!” is played by Bob Glouberman – but I bet it’s Hazanavicius in spirit.
Michel Hazanavicius on set during the making of ‘The Artist’
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