by Erik Watschke, University of California, Irvine, Visual Studies
A hit at Cannes, especially for the performance of its lead actor Jean Dujardin, Michel Hazanavicious' The Artist (2011) is a complexly reflexive film. On its surface, it tells the seemingly recycled story—à la Singin' in the Rain (1952) among others—of a silent film actor struggling to deal with the coming of sound in Hollywood circa 1927. George Valentin (Dujardin) is a man who prides himself on his refusal to do sound films even as his career disintegrates. A binary struggle ensues between the philosophy of Valentin and his main romantic interest Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who embraces the new technologies of film and, as a result, vaults over him to stardom in the new sound cinema. When asked “Why won't you talk?” Valentin's exasperated reply sets the stakes of the film: “Because I'm not a puppet, I'm an artist!”
Ultimately, it is not only Valentin who refuses to talk, but Hazanavicious who handicaps his film in this way. This is immediately apparent in the film's embrace of outmoded features such as black & white photography, a noticibly square screen ratio, and the almost wholesale rejection (almost!) of synchronized sound. These factors have undoubtedly gone a long way in propelling the film to critical attention. Especially noteworthy are the almost surrealist moments that formally indicate that sound simply does not exist in the world of Valentin—on-screen or off!
Yet these apparent details are by no means the film's most sophisticated structural references to the silent cinema: one begins to recognize visual and narrative allusions to everything from The Crowd (1928) all the way back to The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903). One might be tempted to take Valentin at his word—as a stand-in for The Artist itself—that true film artistry corresponds foremost to the silent period sadly lost to history. However, this literalist reading is complicated by the myriad of film references to a long history of sound films as well. With unmistakable invocations to Citizen Kane (1941), Grand Hotel (1932), and everything in-between, a more non-historicized, auto-reflexive critique seems to take shape. In fact, the film may well have just as much to say about recent cinema as it does the early period. Whether or not the entire narratology of The Artist can be taken as a structural allegory for a contemporary debate about film technology in the 21st century is largely contingent upon one's take on Valentin's ultimate solution (which will not be divulged here).
It is of note, nevertheless, that by far the most conspicuous reference of all is an extended sampling of Bernard Hermann's score to Vertigo (1958), just as Valentin arrives at his most desperate moment. As the broken man gazes into a shop window, framing his own reflection perfectly into the sleeves and collar of a tuxedo on display, he imagines what happiness he once possessed. This scene eerily invokes the nostalgic despair of Scottie Ferguson in the Hitchcock film sequence to which the soundtrack alludes. Like Scottie, Valentin clings to the already long dead even as he attempts, anachronistically, to revive it. This is the most poignant and reflexive of all the borrowed moments in the film; The Artist recognizes its own place in a larger history of narratively reflexive filmmaking and celebrates this history through its cinematic nostalgia.
Among the film's chief delights, the casting of Dujardin is laudable and his histrionic maneuverings bring the film as close as it gets to silent film sublimity. Yet, the familiar supporting ensemble is where the film goes the most awry. Any time a recognizable face appears—such as John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, or, worst of all, James Cromwell (who performs admirably, but sticks out like a sore thumb in the role of Valentin's chauffeur)—the illusion is lost. One is left wondering why Goodman, for instance, is performing histrionically in juxtaposition to his well known televisual comedy style. The affect is clever intertextuality at best; awkward distraction at worst. Here, the film loses the essential pathos of the cinema of yesteryear by being a work that is—at times—recognizably outsmarting itself.
In its zeal to duplicate much of the visual iconography of the silent screen of old, The Artist fails to capture the character-driven energy of the same. What is left is a hollowed-out shell of allusions, which might inspire with its passion for the cinema itself, but falls short of capturing the mania of Valentin—the man—in an agreeable form. If he is merely being stubborn, is not the film as well?