The Artistby Kavish Chetty / 16.03.2012
“The most beautiful film I ever fell asleep in,” said a friend of L’Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni. At the purer levels of experience you can bathe in that gorgeous, sea-faring adventure in ennui for only so long. Then, the afflictions of its satiric middle-class become your own: bored, endless, without structure, made-up exquisitely with nowhere to go. It is defeated by its own object of critique and yet its aesthetic attractions (its languid beauty, splendid locations) are no less whole because of this. Perhaps in a moment of harsher criticism, the same can be charged of The Artist. It’s a film that works its satire at a (oh god I’m going to say it) “meta-level”, intellectually, at a remove from its immediate camp and melodrama. On that intellectual plain, it coasts toward the masterful, a bitingly satiric send-up of the past. However, at the closer level of the senses, it carries itself off with the flair of its critiqued object. I mean to say by this that if you find the idea of an early twentieth century comedy-drama too naïve for your tastes, there are those predictable moments that will bore you, that continue long after the point has been made.
But it still carries itself off with such charm and charisma that those boring moments (resigned mostly to the third act) are only flickers. There is nostalgia and homage here to the grand cinema industry in its lush adolescence, but it’s undercut with a brilliant consciousness. To think of this film, in its 4:3 aspect ratio, its monochrome visuals, its silent-ness and inter-titles, as mere homage is to miss the point entirely. This is not a tongueless compliment to a Hollywood of old. This is very much a film of the present, a postmodern reinterpretation with all the cynical benefits of hindsight and history. It praises as it critiques in a curious and excellent complement. Its nostalgia is architected only to be demolished. This is perhaps what will give this film such a broad sweep of appeal across the audience divide. To those taken by the seductions of old-world cinema – simple but bold storytelling, romance, innocent pleasure – the film will satisfy immensely. If you’re interested in cinema’s history, this could operate as a loving tribute, somewhere close to the cinematographically stunning treatment given in Hugo. If it’s the sly deconstructions of art cinema you desire, it’s there too: a spectral presence to some, but the film’s organising theme to others.
The film takes place in the burgeoning era of the Hollywood industry – the late twenties and early thirties – a moment of some upheaval as the old silent films are being replaced by a rush of “talkies”. We open on George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), soon-to-be superannuated superstar of the silent era. He’s moustache is fashionably pencil-thin, his classic handsomeness is that of Douglas Fairbanks. In his telling opening line – or rather text, the film is almost completely silent – he proclaims, in character, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” – The masculine hero refusing to relinquish valuable information to his captors. The curtains close and the audience responds with gushes of laughter and approval. He is an icon; he is adored. But he can’t live large forever in a fickle industry that’s adapting to new demands. Soon his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) is telling him about the advent of sound in cinema, but Valentin is having none of this, laughing the idea off as a passing fad (giving clairvoyance to those opening lines, turning valiance into stubbornness). He is notoriously resistant to change, but this hesitation is not simple conservatism. Contextually, this grabs at the anxiety of many foreign actors working in the industry at the time: as voice starts to become the new norm, the inadequacies of their (accent-tinged) own begin to show up the troubling reality that there’s a new medium they have little place in.
Worsening his fall from grace is a new star on the horizon, the pretty and spritely Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Valentin introduced her to the industry and as she rises – her face plastered on billboards, her name inked in capitals on the broadsheets – he succumbs. He helms his own production company producing flop silent pictures, he has to surrender his mansion to a more modest habitat and he starts to get his alcoholic on, as you would. In his abandonment, he is kept company by only two old friends: his loyal valet (James Cromwell) and his playful show-dog. I might pause the plot here to remark on the brilliant interplay between style and content here. It seems a gimmick to produce a silent film in this era – and believe me it is – but the sly forms of charm and satire the film commands could not have been produced through any other medium. How, for example, to account for the sweet and simple dog achieving such laughs and sighs of cuteness from the audience? The film transports us through time in those moments to a more innocent era where such simple comedy is not fraught with the modern demands for sophistication; the film exploits this terrain of the silent movie to admirable effect.
Its send-ups are always there, always present in the details. The film offers up a few arrows at the old industry: an industry built on power and egoism; the wax and wane of stardom; a fickle public; the refusal to accept change. But this is not consigned to historical comment alone. It bridges itself into the present, alerting us to the continuities with modern mainstream cinema, its lavished actors and actresses, its neuroses and anxieties, its yankee-dollar chase which prompts so many “rise and fall” biographies. This is not a hagiographic worship of Hollywood. It’s sterling critique mingled with a love of cinema.
The plot is hardly the point, of course. We’ve seen this film before (strong resonances with A Star is Born). As such the actual narrative is predictable, quite obviously careering towards another shot at redemption for Valentin and his tattered masculinity. It’s the constant, clever irruptions of surprise that keep it afloat. A fantastic dream sequence (whose intelligence and humour I won’t spoil) is one such surprise. A technical sleight-of-hand at the conclusion is another. The Artist relies on its droves of charm to keep the narrative interesting while it works its satire in the background. Deliberately gimmicky and anachronistic, it manages to save itself through its entertainment and wit, but in an epoch of distraction and cinematic innovation, the plot can still fall victim to its old-school failings. Yet, the film is to be commended for its daring and high-mindedness, its refusal to do a simple cash-hungry capitulation. And they all lived happily ever after.
*The Artist releases nationwide on Friday, 16 March at Ster Kinekor and Cinema Nouveau.