As both a film and piece of pop-culture phenomena, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is about finding common ground in the face of massive technological and emotional change, something that still holds sway today in our ever-changing media landscape. The story of aging movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dapper schmoozer who finds his talent and charm rendered obsolete when Hollywood transitions to talkies in the late 1920s, is constructed as a silent film at war with itself. Part gimmick, part genuine celebration of old-school filmmaking, The Artist balances a rigid dedication to expressionist performance while dropping jarring hints of stifling sound design at key moments. The evolution of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a lovely young upstart who replaces George as America’s favorite movie star, only makes this fragile aesthetic balance all the more haunting.
In the early portions of The Artist, easily the film’s most rewarding scenes, George and Peppy are often juxtaposed as mirror images of each other. Be it the pair’s accidental first glance, brought on by a sudden collision of parallel movement in a busy crowd, or the moment George spots Peppy’s dancing legs underneath a partially lifted backdrop, Hazanavicius finds beauty in the symmetry of bodies. After George decides to shun Hollywood and make an epic silent film on his own dime entitled Tears of Love, the montage sequence documenting his big-budget folly cross-cuts between Peppy’s own ascent to superstardom, a thematic elevator of sorts between the two character’s diverging fates.
While The Artist loses steam as George becomes a washed up drunkard whose self-pity pushes everyone away except his canine side-kick Uggy (another mirroring device), the film always contains an infectious love for the acting pose. Both Dujardin and Bejo are perfectly casted in this vein, each slowly unveiling a shared internal tenderness through a mastery of physical presence. For Dujardin, there’s no better example than a nightmare sequence where ambient sound effects and dialogue turn George's face into a contorted mesh of wrinkles terrified at the prospect of inconsequence. It's as if the devil himself was breaking down the door to a doubt-riddled mind.
Since its premiere at The Cannes Film Festival and impending sale to Academy Award sniper The Weinstein Company, The Artist has been at the center of the film universe, not to mention every Oscar pundit’s mind. This level of overexposure has led to the formation of two extreme critical fronts: those who despise The Artist’s supposed historical importance and those who find it a beguiling celebration of early cinephilia. As with every awards season darling, this massive amount of hype has skewed the film’s many virtues.
Ultimately, I reside somewhere in the middle of these two opinions. The Artist is above all things a joyous if not slight film genuinely entranced by the passage of movie time, one that doesn’t deserve the level of spite spewed at it by self-aggrandizing silent film purists and Weinstein haters nor the overwhelming praise of most critic’s groups. While The Artist will probably win Best Picture based on momentum alone, it’s a movie that will undoubtedly wilt under the pressure of time and distance. Like so many fleeting "movies of the moment," I'm afraid The Artist will fade away quietly into the night only to be remembered for its superbly crafted public relations campaign.
The Artist is now playing at the Hillcrest Cinemas and La Jolla Village Cinemas.