Observing a highly-lauded film often proves to be a challenging experience. Most film writers are well aware of the weight of expectations when it comes to honestly confronting their feelings on a movie that’s been fed to them through the Internet hype-machine and reassembled as something perhaps greater than it is in actuality. There are, of course, tricks to circumventing the effects of hyperbolic praise, but ultimately the only way to enjoy a film that’s been targeted by overwhelming positivism lies in tempering the critical response in one’s mind beforehand and forcing oneself to see the picture through fresh eyes. It’s not an easy feat, and sometimes, try as we might, even very good films simply become so bloated in our minds that they can’t possibly satisfy us as they might have otherwise.
Luckily for me, my experience with Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-dominating The Artist turned out for the better. That doesn’t leave me firmly in the realm of blind adulation for the picture, but I think viewing it toward the hushed peak of its campaign to acquire golden statues from an outmoded awards ceremony actually may have given me clarity I may have lacked if I’d seen it, say, two weeks ago or even late last year. There’s a certain something about The Artist that’s arresting and charming; the latter quality largely stems from the nature of its central performances, which aim to emulate the school of acting so popular during the silent film era. (Though arguably both leading man Gerard Dujardin and the beautiful Bérénice Bejo only provide mimicries of that performing method, which isn’t a criticism as much as a harmless observation.) Based solely on its surface allure– its crisp and beautiful cinematography, its attractive and charismatic cast, and yet another lovable scamp of a Jack Russel Terrier in a 2011 release– it’s not hard to guess at why the film has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike, and how it came to possess the honor of Best Picture.
For my money, though, what’s truly fascinating about The Artist lies well underneath that veneer. For all of its light, airy enchantment, there’s actually a surprising amount going on behind the action here, though there’s nothing wrong with handling The Artist as one would handle any well-meaning, earnest entertainment; taken at face value, the film is a straightforward, earnest, and frequently amusing yarn about George Valentin (Dujardin), a beloved silent film actor who falls out of favor when he refuses to keep up with the times as sound becomes a force in cinema. Fate seems bent on making his ruin complete, of course– he loses not only his status, his livelihood, and his audience, but also his wife and, thanks to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, his financial stability. How does a performer like George bounce back when he’s had everything except his loyal, scrappy, adorable dog (Uggie) taken away from him? Through the efforts of rising starlet Peppy Miller (Bejo), a young woman on the opposite career trajectory as George who has him to thank in part for her runaway success. Everyone loves a comeback, right?
Subtext is one of those things that we, as consumers of a work of art, can consciously choose to ignore in favor of what’s directly presented to us, and you wouldn’t be wrong to just play “what you see is what you get” with The Artist. It’s good fun, often very amusing with its punchy sense of humor and quite romantic when it wants to be, and it’s well enough made and acted; in other words, a more than pleasing diversion to enjoy with friends and family (and it certainly is better when shared with the company of others). But for me, the subtextual is precisely what makes a movie like The Artist so worth my time. Maybe that makes me a snob of sorts; if so, then pass me my copy of The New Yorker and let’s open a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The Artist shares a release year with– and the same tally of Oscar wins as– Scorsese’s Hugo, and the two films are often spoken of in conversations together. I understand why; they’re both about the movies, and cinema itself serves as their substance. But Hugo is truly a movie about movies, whereas The Artist simply uses a specific era of filmmaking as a backdrop and never concerns itself with celebrating silent films in the same way Hugo lauds the work of Georges Méliès. George Valentin’s story could occur in the music industry, or the realm of professional sports. In that sense, it may be more universal, where Hugo is a bit more insular.
But as a trade-off, The Artist is also more cynical. I’ve touched on this before– both here at A Constant Visual Feast and in the comment sections of other blogs– but The Artist essentially ends with the studio system triumphing over creative minds and performers, something which escaped me until I read this piece. George sets out to make a movie on his own and fails miserably, while Peppy acquiesces to studio demands and makes a slew of successful talkies as ruin befalls George at every turn. The key to their respective failure and success lies in playing ball with the studio; while it’s within George’s grasp to self-finance his silent film (what the consumer doesn’t want), he can only maintain relevance by making sound films (what the consumer does want), and he can only make sound films with the aid of the studio. Eschewing that source of support, George crumbles while Peppy soars.
To some, this reads as insidious partisanship which favors the studio; to me, the relationship between George, Peppy, and John Goodman’s cigar-smoking studio suit enriches the entire film and gives it depth. Is it a movie in which commerce and consumerism win over artistry, or one that emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between the artist and their financiers? Whatever the answer may be, these questions certainly raise The Artist above mere crowd-pleasing fluff, though the film’s impressive capacity for entertaining and delighting shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.