The Artist: When tragedy imitates silent farce

This widely acclaimed movie about the fall of a silent screen idol is a silent movie with a modern sensibility. It turns grand tragedy into a frothy, clever spoof, which is both its greatest strength and flaw.

hidden February 24, 2012 15:16:28 IST
The Artist: When tragedy imitates silent farce

By Trisha Gupta

The Artist, as most of us know by now, is a French film set in Hollywood’s silent movie era. Nominated for ten Oscars, the film tells the story of a silent movie star called George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who is suddenly pushed off his pedestal by the arrival of the talkies. Director Michael Hazanivicius’s brilliant innovation is to marry content to form.

“The Artist is not just about black-and-white silent pictures. It is a black-and-white silent picture,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker last November, when Hazanivicius’s charming gamble of a film hit US theatres. But as you watch the movie, it begins to feel like a carefully calibrated gamble.

The Artist When tragedy imitates silent farce

Jean Dujardin in The Artist. Screen grab from YouTube

The Artist is a black-and-white silent picture, sure – but it is a black-and-white silent picture made in 2011. It takes the sound and the look of silent pictures, but stops short of trying to recreate the feel of those films. The great films of the silent era – GW Pabst’s 'Pandora’s Box', Fritz Lang’s 'Metropolis', Erich von Stroheim’s 'Greed', FW Murnau’s 'Sunrise' ,or even the great Chaplin films – had depth, atmosphere, grandeur, and pain. Even when funny, they were not cute. The Artist is.

Yet, here's the odd thing: the story it tells – of a man’s unstoppable fall from the heights of fame into the abyss of depression and self-pity – is the undeniable stuff of tragedy. And like all true tragedies, it is not just the story of one man, but a universal account of a star's fall from public favour; an irreversible change of popular mood that seems capricious and inexplicable. One moment, our moustachioed hero is the darling of audiences, mobbed by people in the street, and the next moment, no one even recognizes him. The historical context makes the tragedy irreversible – no-one wants to see silent films any more.

Running parallel to Valentin’s decline is the meteoric rise to stardom of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). The unknown girl – who earns her first five minutes of fame by giving Valentin a chaste peck on the cheek, much to the delight of press photographers – is catapulted to fame and fortune by the rise of the very talkies that drag him down.

Hazanivicius takes this unhappy tale and makes of it a light, fluffy confection of a film, where the terrible things that happen are never quite explained, and never allowed to weigh us down. This quixotic artistic choice is most striking in his depiction of Valentin’s crumbling marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). We first see Doris without quite seeing her: her face is hidden behind a newspaper which carries the photograph of Peppy kissing George’s cheek. And her character remains that way throughout the movie, as invisible to us as she clearly is to her husband. We’re never told why their relationship is the way it is.

Peppy’s love for George is also ineffable, especially as he sinks deeper into a self-aggrandising self-pity. Berenice Bejo’s fresh-faced, incandescent performance manages to almost make us believe in her lasting attraction to the actor she had once worshipped on-screen. But even her sincere tears, as she watches Valentin’s silent movie swansong 'Tears of Love' in a near-empty cinema hall, cannot make that film’s supposedly tragic climax feel anything but funny.

In fact, none of the snatches of the silent films we’re shown in The Artist can be taken seriously. The world of silent cinema is reduced to a string of ridiculously theatrical costume capers. It is as if The Artist is saying to contemporary audiences, silent films were darling little things, sure, but we’ve come a long way since then. And that is a pity.

The pleasures of watching Hazanivicius’s film lie in the sly gags about sound and silence: inter-titles in silent pictures in which tortured men say “I won’t speak"; George’s dreams in which he finds he can no longer speak at all: silent picture as a nightmare world. And there is the undeniable, unexpected reward of watching virtuoso old-style physical acting. The scene where George places his dog (the marvellous canine actor Uggie) on the breakfast table and imitates his gestures; another where he adopts a deliberately stiffened gait and theatrically raised eyebrow to shoot a scene with Peppy – these draw brilliantly on traditions of mime and vaudeville.

Both Dujardin and Bejo fully inhabit their roles, often in a heartfelt fashion that transcends this frothy, clever spoof of a movie. Perhaps we should not ask for more.

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