As this year’s Oscars Best Picture, The Artist seemed like a logical (and somewhat necessary) follow-up to Hugo. It opens with silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)—proud, confident, and self-possessed, a performer clearly at the top of his game. A chance incident allows him to meet aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whom he marks with a beauty spot to help boost her career. Two years later, Kinograph Studios decides to work exclusively on talkies, signing Peppy on as a fresh face. Soon, Peppy’s burgeoning career overshadows George, obliterating silent films and plunging him into despair as a new, talking world pushes its way to invade his private silence.
Michel Hazanavicius stakes a gutsy gamble with The Artist, but it’s a wager the director unmistakably wins. His film flaunts clichés that contemporary moviemakers go through great lengths to avoid. The characters are flat, simple, one-dimensional; the plot is predictable; and the comedy is of the slapstick variety, complete with charming stunt dog. But even with this, the film offers an endearing sincerity that’s become a rare commodity nowadays. On another level, it pulls off its flagrant use of conventions because that’s precisely the point.
Despite its seeming transparency, The Artist succeeds as a project of imaginative proportions. Here we have a black-and-white movie depicting the decline of silent films alongside the invention of talkies. What’s laudable about the work—and what belies its outward simplicity—is how it replicates this same tension both in form and elsewhere within the narrative. The movie’s central issue involves a man’s inability to reconcile his silence with the world’s celebration of sound and dialogue. “Why do you refuse to talk?” his wife asks. Eventually, even the act of talking becomes hostile for George, and he covers his ears in futile defense.
A product of magnificent filmmaking, this movie indeed surpasses Hugo (hampered as it is by family drama ambitions) but, between the two, The Artist holds less emotional resonance. This might not constitute valid criticism—since it’s a byproduct of the film’s aforementioned simplicity—but it’s an observation nonetheless. Hazanavicius’ ode to cinema is beautiful in the same way that distant scenery is beautiful. Maki and I watched Midnight in Paris that same day, and although we both concede that The Artist is definitely more accomplished, we also agree that—literary biases avowed—the former, like Hugo, hits closer to the heart.
‘I’m unhappy, George.’ ‘So are millions of us.’