Film review by: Witney Seibold
Michel Hazanavicius has previously directed a pair of recent high-profile French spy spoofs about agent OSS-117 (played in the films by Jean Dujardin), which are, essentially, yet another send-up of the James Bond myth. The humor was broad and silly (most of the jokes stemmed from OSS-177’s inability to change his racist and sexist attitudes, á la Austin Powers, but with a Gallic classiness), but the attention to detail was impeccable. Hazanavicius, to make sure the 1960s period felt authentic, tracked down period suits and dresses, arranged period-style lighting, and even shot on 1960s film stock to make the film look as genuine as possible. The thematic ambition of the film weren’t very high, but the sheer, pure love of old cinema was at the forefront.
Hazanavicius and Dujardin have now reteamed in yet another love-story-cum-fairy-tale about old movies with “The Artist,” an honest-to-goodness silent film about an old-timey silent film star making the awkward adjustment to the world of talkies in the late 1920s, and finding that the quickly-changing world of film technology is leaving him behind. The film is sweet and fun and funny and enjoyable, and, thanks to the current film technology revolution and the slow bloating rise of the in-home-only movie-viewing attitudes, feels striking significant.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, a Valentino-type film star who is charming, slicked down, and surging with ego. He smiles for the cameras, hogs the spotlight at premieres, and has no luck placating his long-suffering wife (Penelope Anne Miller, so that’s where she’s been). Coming down the stairs behind him (to borrow a phrase from “Showgirls”) is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a cutecute, extra-smiley young ingénue who aspirations of taking the new talkie world by storm, and who has a burning crush on Valentin (which is demonstrated in an adorable scene wherein Peppy makes out with Valentin’s coat). As Peppy’s new talkies begin to gain traction in the world, Valentin’s films begin to flop. Valnetin decides to make the silent epic he’s always wanted to outside of the studio system (represented by an L.B. Mayer-type, played by John Goodman). His ambitious art film flops.
It’s then surprising how much of the film is devoted to Valentin’s fall. We spend a good third of the film, if not more, detailing the onset of poverty, the lack of work, and the slow increase in helplessness and loss of hope. Eventually Peppy, now wealthy, begins surreptitiously purchasing his old belongings. Only Valentin’s faithful butler (James Cromwell) stays by his side.
This film is up for Best Picture this year at the Academy Awards, and it is currently the front-runner. I can see why. It’s a fairy tale about Hollywood’s past. It’s a sweet, funny, brief (at only 100 minutes) loving ode to the way Hollywood change can be a positive thing.
In a way, “The Artist” serves as a startling counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” also up for Best Picture. “Hugo” looks to the past, and finds that old films should be restore, perfected, enjoyed by new generations. It explains, in no uncertain terms, that your work as an artist will remain vital through the ages, and you will live in a state of constant rediscovery (so long as film preservationists do their job). “The Artist,” by contrast, features a scene where the title characters, when looking over his old films, forgotten by the world after only a few years’ time, burns his old movies in a fit of depression, and only finds new hope in embracing the new, and moving into a talkie with music and dancing. “The Artist,” I’m willing to wager, would seem chilling to Scorsese, as it seems to argue that clinging to the past and keeping it alive is a futile exercise, and that we, instead, should actively destroy the past, and mutate into something new.
Hollywood, I think, prefers the latter model, which is why much of The Academy loves the film. I would argue that there is room enough for both in cinema. We should have old films preserved to inspire new generations and keep the history of the medium alive. At the same time, though, we should cautiously strike out in new directions, and explore what new tools we can with new technologies. One, however, should not necessarily trump the other.
“The Artist” itself, though, may not have that much on its mind. It’s wispy and breezy and fun. The actors all smile, and the story is simplified and sweet. It becomes, perhaps, a mite too dark at times, but it never feels deep. I liked it just fine.
But I like “Hugo” better.