“The Artist”
“The Artist” is one of those unique films that is unlike any other, and as such, it will be adored by some, hailed as groundbreaking by others, while most will shuffle away wondering what all the fuss is about.
There are certain militarists who complain that America ’s excursion into undeclared war in faraway countries is tantamount to fighting with one hand tied behind your back, because we do not use all the arsenal or resources available to us, but instead try to carry on with a self-limited repertoire. The same could be said about “The Artist.” With all the incredible computer technology available to filmmakers these days, it’s interesting to see what is essentially a silent film, shot in black and white, with no spoken dialogue. Set in the 1920’s, it’s about an enormously successful star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who mugs and pantomimes his way through various adventures on the screen, with the full orchestra playing an original score in the background. Basically, he’s an old vaudeville man, an adept dancer who is graceful on the stage, and will often answer his curtain calls with a little jig, accompanied by his too-cute little dog. He always dresses formally, and smiles enthusiastically, and waves effusively, because, well, this is show biz. He’s handsome, in a Clark-Gable kind of thin-mustache way, he seems to be having a great time, and the audiences love him.
Ah, but times change, and so does technology, and so does the fickle taste of audiences. (And, after all, “the public is never wrong”). Hollywood suddenly develops “the talkies,” where a sound track can be inserted into the moving picture, and suddenly there is no market at all for the silent films, because everyone is so interested in actually hearing dialogue, rather than relying on either lip-reading or the occasional blocking out of the entire screen in order to show written dialogue, which didn’t help the suspension of disbelief dynamic (closed captions hadn’t been invented yet, either). A whole new set of younger, different stars emerged, and while our fearless George tries to write, direct, produce and star in one more silent film, he winds up sinking all his money into a flop. The public just isn’t interested any more. His wife, never all that pleased with him (or anything else) anyway, decides to leave him, and then the stock market crashes, pretty much converting him overnight into a pauper. The last thing to leave is his faithful chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell).
The only person left in Hollywood who seems to care any more is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who was only a dancing extra in the silent movies, who eventually worked her way up to some cameo roles, so at least they knew who she was, but now she’s become a famous star in the new “talkie” era. She feels sorry for George, but he doesn’t want her pity, or her help, even though, at personal risk, she cajoles her own Director on George’s behalf.
Of course it all feels very old-fashioned, and not just because of the costumes and the sets, but also the innocent interaction (for all you genteel hopefuls out there, no sex, nudity, violence, coarse language, or even a hair out of place). So is it a tour de force? A curiously vigorous experiment? An assiduous homage to a much earlier era? An obsession with a romantic past long since consigned to the dustbin of old movie reels? Well, audiences will have to decide. And the moviegoing public is never wrong.
Dr. Ronald P.Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas