The silent-film valentine The Artist, currently steamrolling towards a Best Picture win at the Oscars in a few weeks, is an enjoyable lollipop of a film. I don’t know that it’s the best of the year, but then I don’t know that the other eight nominees are, either. Away from the hype and the awards, it tells the simple story of a silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who faces a dark night of the soul when talkies encroach. The French do love these fables of obsolescence: the animated film The Illusionist, Oscar-nominated last year, considered the pain of an elderly magician at sea in a world of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps the Academy loves these fables, too (Martin Scorsese’s birth-of-cinema fantasia Hugo is also nominated). The powerful love to pity themselves when the powerless — the plebes, the audience — reject them for the next new thing.
For about the first 45 minutes, Jean Dujardin has a toothy grin of self-satisfaction bisecting his face. It becomes a little annoying, more so maybe because we realize George is being set up for a humbling fall. A young actress who got a walk-on (or dance-on) in one of his films, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is rising fast in the new world of talkies. She pities him, I guess, and tries to help him out, but he’s too proud. His long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out of their mansion. He moves to a schlubby apartment, accompanied by his loyal dog and his equally loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell), who refuses to leave even though he hasn’t been paid in a year. I was thinking: Dude, I don’t care if you can’t pay your driver — he can get another job — but your dog can’t get another job, and you’d better be putting some food in his dish.
Ah, but none of this is supposed to be taken literally or even seriously, I know. It is, as I said, a fable. The talkies made many stars but destroyed many others, many of whom just couldn’t tone down their effects — their “mugging” — or had terrible voices, like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain (still, by the way, the movie to beat on the subject of Hollywood’s silent-to-talkies transition). This all coincided with the Great Depression (as we see here), and despair was all too common. Nobody wants to see a movie about Marie Prevost, the silent-film star who was found dead in a hotel room at 38, with bites on her legs from her dachshund trying to wake her up. That kind of story doesn’t win Oscars or get embraced by art-house audiences looking for comfort food. But it was the reality for a lot of people like George Valentin.
I’m not saying I wanted The Artist to be that kind of story, either. But writer-director Michel Hazanavicius toys with despair only to gloss over it. The ending seems a bit neutral: we’re not sure if George is indeed going to have a comeback or if he should just be happy being in front of a camera again with the woman he loves. Or does he? George and Peppy hardly spend any time together, and it seems like more of a mentor-student relationship, as in The Illusionist. There’s not a lot of personality to go around (though James Cromwell speaks volumes with a few subtle expressions, and John Goodman provides some fun as a producer); even the dog only has his one trick (play dead), repeated without variation. The dog is adorable, like everyone else here, but adorability only takes you so far.