Monday, January 16, 2012

The Artist


The Artist is a work of technical brilliance, cleverly countercultural as a silent black-and-white film being released in a world of 3D and IMAX. It is a film that will charm and woo you, much like its central character, silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). It will make you laugh, might make you cry, but certainly will keep you entertained. And if entertainment is all you want, The Artist will certainly oblige. Call me insatiable, but I want more than entertainment. I want to be both dazzled and inspired, charmed and challenged, experiencing both woo and wonderment.

Set in the late 1920s during the climax of the silent film era, the story follows the fall of Valentin and the rise of young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) as their movie careers briefly intersect. Valentin is the star of the moment, with a winsome smile and playful antics that capture audiences' hearts. His little Jack Russell terrier sometimes nearly steals the show with his canine capabilities, but Valentin is always hoarding the spotlight. A chance meeting between Peppy and George lands her a role as an extra in his next film, leading to an infatuation that is clearly captured in their longing gazes into each others' eyes.

When the talking pictures begin to roll out, Valentin refuses to jump on board. "If that's the future, it's not for me," he scoffs as he walks out of his producer's office. He finances his own silent film, pouring all of his savings into a lost cause. Meanwhile, Miller becomes the new young heartthrob of Hollywood, slowly working her way into larger roles. The onset of the talking movies makes her a star; she is simply delightful. Her first big film debut is released the same day as Valentin's silent opus. You already know which one the audiences want to see. Peppy continues her upward climb; Valentin sinks lower.

Valentin continues into a downward spiral, destroying his marriage, his relationships with anyone close to him, isolating himself in a dingy apartment and drinking his sorrows away. The film wants us to feel a deep sense of sympathy and pity for him. After all, he has already charmed us with his dashing looks and enormous smile. But the more I reflect, the more I find myself lacking in pity for such a man. His downfall is his pride and arrogance, and no smile can ultimately cover that up. Self-glorification ultimately leads to isolation and destruction, a lesson Valentin embodies. Miller continues to show him pity, reaching out to him throughout the film, only to be rejected due to Valentin's ego. Is Valentin worthy of grace? He certainly needs it, as do we all. But I wonder if he's willing to even accept its free gift, to experience the grace we all need. The Hollywood lights in his eyes blind him to the redemption he desperately needs.

If The Artist is a celebration of the early days of cinema, it fails to impress me with the character of Valentin. He is selfish and distraught, but he isn't broken by his fall. He continues to refuse to admit his own fallacies. Consider another recent film that celebrates the silent film era: Hugo. Georges Melies was also a star once, creating imaginative and fantastic films, only to be ruined by the onset of the talking film and financial problems. He is a bitter and broken old man, but his brokenness means he is not beyond redemption. As far as I can tell, Valentin never breaks. He finally allows someone else to pick him up--Peppy, with her strange commitment to such a man--but by the film's conclusion, his only sign of redemption is that smile of his. As critic Jeffrey Overstreet puts it, "You may smile and smile, and be a villain."

The Artist is delightful fun, but it failed to satisfy my longing for something more, something meaningful, something transcendent. There are some wonderful scenes (a brief dance shared by George and Peppy must be retaken repeatedly as he continually is distracted by her beauty; the terrier attempting to save George from a fire; the brief moments when sound is actually used in a silent film), and it is a charming film. It could charm us all on its way to the Academy Awards.

5 comments:

  1. I felt like this movie was more about adapting to change than redemption. I could not help but walk out of the theatre with a huge smile on my face. That final scene is just perfect.

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  2. Cam, there are certainly some fantastic scenes--particularly the last one--but the whole thing felt a bit shallow for me, hence my mixed review. And if the theme is "adapting to change," how does Valentin actually embody this? He is overtly resistant to change until the "new" sympathetically chooses to accommodate him, not the other way around. It feels like like adaptation and more like having an adult version of a temper tantrum until he gets his way. He just does so with enough charm to keep the audience connected with him (and his incredible little dog).

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  3. It might be the difference in definition and interpretation that separates us with this film. I don't see it as the "new" accommodating him. I see it as the "new" inspiring ways to make the "old" progress. It's with the friendship and loyalty of the "new" that the "old" can change and survive. Cinema, as much as we might hate to accept it, might be dying. People are going to the theatre less and less opting for technology and convenience. But now companies like Netflix, AMC, and Regal are choosing to invest and make their own original content. They are still making movies, but the way we view them is different. I mean, look at Blockbuster. There's George Valentin for you. Bankrupt, down and out, and a drunkard (okay, not really). Now, I'm not saying that Blockbuster is going to rise up, but it certainly has the potential if it can embrace the new ways of delivering content to the masses. And that might just be what Dish Network does with the company. The drama might have felt shallow to you, but I would say that this is what happens to the majority of people who face such trials.

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  4. Cam, great response, particularly with the Blockbuster analogy. I can appreciate the interpretation, though I still humbly disagree with it. I hope the majority of people who face such trials don't take Valentin's route, which was (partial spoiler alert!) self-destruction and suicide. I would also not call what he faces a "trial," as those are a sort of test of endurance and strength. I'd prefer to call it "narcissistic self-injury." (Though "trial" is certainly a much shorter term). It wasn't like he wasn't offered chances, or experienced some sort of tragedy to overcome (cancer, natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, etc.) that wasn't self-inflicted in some way due to his pride.

    In this sense, it's a remake of "Sunset Blvd," a classic film also that explores the Hollywood culture of narcissism. But unlike "Sunset Blvd," which rightly paints Norma Desmond as demented and recluse, "The Artist" chooses to paint Valentin as the misunderstood protagonist. Therein lies my frustration; he is a broken man who refuses to admit his brokenness, and the film paints this in a sympathetic light.

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    1. *Correction on the spoiler: attempted suicide.

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