The Artist is monochrome, silent and does not consist of any cinematic behemoth that would woo audiences (i.e., the generic herd of moviegoers). However, the fact that this movie is better than most other movies of recent times comes across as a rather delightful irony.
The transition of movies from silent to sound has been remarkably captured through the various perspectives and reactions of those who have been affected by the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, for instance. The Artist seems inspired from the former, with its quirky sense of humour but has a protagonist who shares the dogma of Norma Desmond as far as ‘talkie’ movies are concerned. The man is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a conceited, debonair, illustrious actor of an era where facial contortions and subtitles do most of the talking.
While celebrating the success of his latest movie, he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who later turns into the luckiest of his throngs of worshippers. There is the spark of romance there, but that flame is left unfed, since Valentin is married to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), though rather unhappily. But his tidal wave of confidence soon tosses him ashore with the introduction of sound in cinema, with Peppy being one of the harbingers of the winds of change. With the writing on the wall being all too clear, it is Valentin’s love for himself that blinds him, as the zeitgeist sweeps through like a storm, leaving him stripped of everything but his vanity, as the artist now has to learn the art-form of survival.
The movie is like a monologue of how change is inevitable and how we must adapt or get run over by it. It preaches this lesson by drawing parallels between the old and new. The initial comparison is between silent cinema and the ‘talkies’ showing how the former had to perish at the hands of sound. This comparison is also a metaphor for George and Peppy where the former is an imploding star and the latter, a new sunrise. “Out with the old, in with the new. Make way for the young!” Peppy says. This is when George realizes that it might be his turn to fade out if he didn’t embrace the change.
The performances are fabulous, with a special mention going out to the dog, who deserves the honour of being the best canine I have ever seen. Dujardin with his pencil moustache gives his act a certain authenticity, while the gregarious, affectionate Berenice is right in her shoes. The differences brought about in the acting, as compared to regular movies due to the absence of a voice are palpable – subtleties are paid special attention to, physical movements flow like a cadence and the eyes convey most of the emotions.
But the movie meets has its shortcomings, some of which are too blatant to ignore. Primary of these is the rather hackneyed storyline. If you want a movie that talks about what a silent-film icon goes through once sound is introduced, you need to look no further than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The only thing that movie did different from The Artist is track the downfall of its protagonist into insanity, while this one doesn’t go that far.
The film begins as a comedy, and masquerades like one for a sizeable proportion of its runtime (heck, it won the Golden Globe for Best Picture Comedy). But once it gradually descends into a tragedy, it fails to get its viewers along, who happen to get stuck in a limbo between laughter and sympathy at the protagonist’s fate. The seriousness that one needs to empathize with the protagonist is amiss because the movie begins on too much of an upbeat note. This failure, arising from trying to balance on two rafts at the same time, unfortunately, makes it a case of being lost in transition.
Nevertheless, The Artist isn’t merely a movie with a message, but also an ode to movies of the day when Hollywood was popular as Hollywoodland. The movie exudes an air of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and makes you feel like you’ve actually been there – every third man wears bowler hat and the paparazzi hobbles around with archaic cameras. The film has panache and vivacity that one rarely gets to see in modern times. However, the salute is only concluded when the film makes its final move – outdoing most other films of the year in terms of excellence, which shows that Valetin, actually, might have been right.