Screens at CIFF: 10/20 - Closing Night
World premiere: 15 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival
The Artist is wildly inconsequential. I say this not in the spirit of judgment - well, okay, it's very much a judgment, but it's not judgmental, and there's a difference there. It's a film that has virtually nothing to say about the human condition, only a little bit to say about the neurotic self-destructive impulses of creative types, and is unlikely in the extreme to change your life in any profound way. None of these things keep it from being an awfully good movie, if not a flat-out great movie; for instead of meaning and truth and depth, it has sheer delight. Never, ever count out a movie for being delightful; especially when it's been made at such an across-the-board high level of craftsmanship as The Artist.
The film takes place in 1927 and the next few years in Hollywood, and tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), one of the biggest romantic/adventure leads of the day (it's difficult to imagine how much more obvious it could be that he's a Rudolph Valentino stand-in), who was blindsided by the arrival of sound in '28; and while Valentin is watching with confusion as his career glides away, there's a certain girl (Bérénice Bejo) who got her start as an extra in one of Valentin's last films, who has a certain something that the public adores, and she quickly becomes one of the biggest new stars of the sound era. She has a name, but to be honest, the moment in which she announces it is such a good laugh line that I'm loath to spoil it; anyway, referring to the female lead of a silent picture simply as "The Girl" is backed up by a good deal of tradition.
It plays, in the abstract, as another entry in the evergreen tradition of A Star Is Born and its remakes (and its precursors: the original Star is basically just an uncredited redo of 1932's What Price Hollywood?), with just a little bit of a twist: Valentin and the girl do not marry or spend much time with each other at all, so although her rise parallels his fall, it's not quite so schematic in its irony as the standard version of the plot. And to be fair, writer-director Michel Hazanavicius is absolutely clear in his intention that we should make the connection, just as he is eager that we should be thinking of that most famous of all "rocky transition to sound" movies, Singin' in the Rain. For The Artist isn't just a melodrama about the twisty lives of movie stars, not even primarily that: it's a movie about old-fashioned filmmaking and cinephilia, an homage to late silent pictures by and for people who love them. It is, itself, a silent film, in fact, and as good a re-creation of the aesthetic of that time period as you could ever hope to see: it's in the Academy aspect ratio, with fuzzily diffused black-and-white, and it's even composed like a '20s film, which is something better intuited than explained - there's a certain way that mise en scène was arranged in a late silent film that was already old-fashioned by end of the '30s, and it takes more than just filming people in black-and-white to get there. Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman get there, better than any other deliberately archaic neo-silent I've seen: better than the excellent 2005 Call of Cthulhu, better even than Guy Maddin's experiments in creating brand-new 80-year-old movies.
This is not, or at least should not be completely surprising, for Hazanavicius has basically built his career on the precise re-creation of vintage filmmaking styles: The Artist is his fourth feature, and his previous two were the OSS 117 spy parodies, Cairo, Nest of Spies and Lost in Rio, a pair of movies also starring Dujardin and filmed by Schiffman that could not have more perfectly copied even the smallest details of mid-'60s genre filmmaking. And like those movies, The Artist spends a lot of time, perhaps even too much, coasting on how well it performs this mimicry, though unlike the OSS 117 pictures, there's never even a hint of the feeling that Hazanavicius is making fun of his subject. Pointing out the silliness, maybe (what we see of the movies Valentin and the girl make are giddily funny and much further from parody than a viewer unfamiliar with '20s cinema might suppose), but in the most loving, affectionate way. It is a celebration, rather than a send-up, and much of what works best assumes that the viewer has as much fondness for silent film and especially silent comedy as the filmmakers do.
The rest of what works is for a much simpler reason: by replicating so much of the mentality behind the great silent comedies, The Artist ends up replicating their effectiveness: matters of heresy aside, it's got a bit of the same tone of a Charles Chaplin picture, though Valentin is hardly as lovable as the Little Tramp. The girl, however, would have made a perfect Chaplin heroine, despite Bejo's too-modern look (the single stylistic flaw in the movie): I might also add that it is terribly dismaying that Dujardin, though he is outstanding, is sucking up all the acclaim for the acting: Bejo is every bit his equal, and with a less overtly showy role.
Hell, The Artist even duplicates the common sin of Chaplin pictures, though "sin" is an awfully strong word in either context: as the movie goes on, particularly after its best scene (an absolutely magnificent nightmare Valentin has about being out of place in a world of sound), things get a lot less hilarious and a lot less creative and a lot more... sentimental, I want to say, but that's pushing it. It's in the right neighborhood, though, and while the characters and performances are enough to keep us engaged in the film's shift to a lower key, the best parts of the movie are all in the beginning, when Hazanavicius and Dujardin are really just showing off: the actor nails any number of vaudeville tricks that you would have assumed were long-dead, and there's a stupidly cute dog who is used to uncannily great effect, there are a lot of fun little cameos (and even not-so-cameos: John Goodman's boisterous supporting turn as a long-suffering director is also far better than the complete lack of buzz surrounding him would have you believe), and great in-jokes, and it's all in all the most unbridled fun I've had in a movie in 2011. The fun deflates a little; the jokes grow thinner on the ground; but even at its relative worst, The Artist is a sweet little trifle, very much the equal in romanticism and charm to the movies it's emulating, and it's playful to a nearly impossible degree.