People speak of The Artist as if its being a black-and-white silent film were a liability. As if the Weinsteins were taking a risk tantamount to installing hand cranks in the whole bevy of new Beamers. But that assumes that The Artist is an audacious work of art, and not the screen equivalent of the gimmick books by the register at Urban Outfitters. It’s a sweet-natured throwback—an impressively faithful simulacrum—and fun till the plot gets a little tedious and the novelty wears off. Grandma may approve of it more than she does of your apartment’s toilet-side edition of Everybody Poops; but both are processed quickly, and are just as quickly flushed away.
The lineage is so obvious and well-established—the director, Michel Hazanavicius, has cribbed from A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain—that plot explication is nearly irrelevant. But here goes. It’s 1927, and movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) basks his adoring public in a smile broad enough to sprain his jawbone. Enter Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who—thanks in part to George’s tutelage—becomes the new It Girl, just in time for sound to come into play and dethrone the king of silents. Her meteoric success is in direct variation with his career’s demise; but she pines for him, and he’s got a hankering for her, so George’s John Gilbert grows up and becomes the Fred Astaire to Peppy’s Ginger Rogers. In sum, the plot’s as thin as George’s mustache—and light as a communion wafer: Although it stretches only as far as the early ’30s, the storyline is pure Post-Code morality. Peppy would be a contemporary of Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West—but she’s the kind of gal who makes whistles look filthy. Perhaps she’s kinkier on screen—we aren’t shown the source of her star appeal; her career isn’t elaborated on beyond the titles of her vehicles. But Peppy the civilian is selfless, sexless, and one- dimensional enough that a more opprobrious critic might find the film’s sexual politics reactionary. Even this less opprobrious critic thinks it odd that we become as easily inured to the movie’s antique attitudes as we do to its antique format, itself a surprisingly easy sell. Maybe, because of the medium, we tolerate the message?
Hazanavicius doesn’t just replicate the texture of silent films with camera angles and lenses, or from the boyish spring in Bejo’s Charleston step, or the craggy facial canyons of the ever-abiding stock-character chauffeur (James Cromwell); he recreates a context in which we accept the conventions—some may say inanities—of an earlier era of storytelling, with a minimum of irony. This produces some wonderful moments, such as when Peppy’s hand caresses her thigh from the sleeve of George’s unoccupied jacket, or George’s nightmare—synched to glaringly artificial sound effects. But The Artist is imitative rather than innovative; its dramaturgy and camerawork aren’t interesting beyond the fact that they are convincingly old-fashioned. It doesn’t have the insatiable ambition of the German Expressionists, or the intricate stunts of Keaton and Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, or the show-stopping song-and-dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain. And when he threatens to stray beyond the pale of nostalgic novelty, in an allusion to Vertigo—30 years, and about as many genres, off—Hazanavicius cops out completely. The Artist is winsome but negligible. But if the blue-haired ladies who were applauding in the audience keep clapping as loudly as they did for The King’s Speech, giving the Oscar to this silent may be a sound choice.