The Artist—Orion’s Take (A Response to Apple)
After watching The Artist it was hard not to smile—I will bet Apple didn’t even notice that she, too was smiling—which is why I feel it necessary to defend this film as more than a well-crafted but ultimately empty homage. First of all, the film is beautifully shot: the black and white takes nothing away from the clarity of the scenes—after a nightmare we see the beads of sweat gathering on George Valentin’s forehead, the wrinkles in his bed sheets. The whole film is sumptuous despite the lack of voices, and I believe nothing of the story was lost because of the format. But more importantly, this film transcends the familiarity of its story to present a story that is as universal as any story can be—there is a reason romances still dominate the reading of many people everywhere.
To get to the meat of my argument, I believe that the strength of this movie lies in that intangible thing we call a heart: this film has a lot of it. Yes, the film is no doubt clever (in an early scene the audience in made comfortable with the format through the device of a film within a film—we watch as the audience laughs and cheers silently and suddenly it doesn’t seem so strange) and yes it is excellently crafted (compact, besides a slightly slow middle to end sequence) but what gives this film its shine is the emotional truth of the story. To illustrate what I think is a major theme in the film, take the relationship between George Valentin and Doris, his wife: words are not needed to express the growing distance between the two. While some might find it laughable that the only ways in which the growing tension is materialized is in indifference by Valentin as he reads the paper and contemptuous doodling by Doris, major psychological studies have suggested that the two best indicators of a failing relationship are stonewalling (a reluctance or refusal to discuss problems) and contempt.
In comparison, Peppy Miller’s refusal to give up on Valentin even as he rebuffs her and falls into disrepair rings true because even though the two characters are not always likeable, they are better together than apart. If you define the characters by their flaws, Valentin is a prideful, foolish, and sometimes careless man. Peppy, on the other hand, is obsessive, vain, and arrogant. But when put together, we see the gentleness of Valentin expressed in his charming smile, the fire and spunk of Peppy as she fights for the man she has never lost sight of, the way the screen warms up when the two are together. These are neither good nor bad people—we sometimes forget that movie stars are just regular people who have been thrust into a life where they are venerated as gods—these are people who love and who cry and who have dreams that sometimes are realized and sometimes fall into nothingness.
The acting is a subtle and expert exploration of this character. Jean Dujardin brings real charm to George Valentin, as well as darkness that melds well with his decline as a star. Bérénice Bejo is so spunky that she had me chuckling throughout the film, though she also skillfully exhibits the symptoms of obsession in Peppy Miller.
In terms of cliché, I think it is important to note that the director studied the silent films of the 1920s to see how it was he was going to build this film. The things we consider clichés are simply the essences of the films of the past—the director has no qualms defining the Artist as a melodrama, and melodramas have their own requirements. It makes about as much sense to decry the elements of melodrama in this film as “clichés” as it does to critique the formal structure of a sonnet as “outdated.”
This film succeeds because it rings true—predictability doesn’t make a story false. Also, I think Apple misinterprets her desire to see the film end happily as obviousness: I fully expected the film to end in tragedy, but really wanted it to be otherwise. Apple has a suspiciousness for endings she calls “cop-out” endings, but not all stories end unhappily. And I think that this is another great strength of the Artist, the ability to give the characters a happy ending, despite how easy it would have been to satisfy our schadenfreude with a descent into hopelessness. The film doesn’t allow the audience to wallow in despair: it says, “Look at this man, fallen and ready to give up, and see that change is never impossible.”
See also Apple’s Review and Kathy’s Review.