Dear The Artist,
How does one tell when a stylistic choice is more than clever gimmick meant to lend meaning to an otherwise well done but unremarkable film? Perhaps the most certain criteria is whether or not that gimmick, that stylistic decision, is done in the name of artistic statement or simple cleverness. In the instance of Memento, we had a film told backwards as a means of giving the audience an insight into the mind of the protagonist, and leading to a final-scene revelation that threw all other actions into stark relief. That film used its gimmick as a means of completely subverting and redefining everything that came before.
As I watched you, The Artist, I found myself wondering if you would manage to pull off the same subtle slight of hand. On the surface and for almost the entirety of your run, I couldn’t make up my mind if your portraying the era of silent films in the guise of a silent film was really a necessary choice. After all, if period pictures did this more often we wouldn’t even be able to see any films taking place pre-1900s. Sure, your actors had the kind of charisma and pluck that seemed tailor-made for silent films, your score was playful and dramatic enough to carry the dialogue-free narrative, but what was the point? Couldn’t the things being seen be given words? After all, what could the continued and rigid lack of dialogue really have to say beyond “this is how movies were”?
This thought became especially prevalent during the scenes that took place following the era’s transition from silent films to talkies. Surely now we might get some dialogue? But no, still silent era actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) remained a wordless enigma. His fierce opposition to starring in the new crop of talking pictures grew more and more unfathomable as your story unfolded.
Yet in spite of this I remained invested. Dujardin had the classically expressive and handsome face of a silent era star, and his charismatic physical work here was more than enough to draw me in. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), his female protege and love interest, also aided in easing the oddity of the silent film, more than living up to her name. Their chemistry, and the cleverness of some of your silent, nonverbal exchanges make you a wonderfully entertaining film for the first quarter of your run. You utilize a number of clever and engaging acts of staging and acting to create a very compelling and easy to follow narrative that even the most flighty audience member can appreciate.
Special mention must also be made of Uggie, who played ‘the dog.’ Here is an actor who could never have been given dialogue – bridging the silent/talkie gap – and he manages to steal almost all of his scenes. He reminds me of the dog, Arthur, from Beginners. In each case the animal ended up throwing their owner’s issues back into their own faces, allowing for them to see a new perspective on their actions. On top of this, both animals allow for charming, entertaining moments that break up the drama of the proceedings and give some breathing room to the narrative.
But what of the gimmick? Without giving too much away, let me say that you do, finally, justify your decision to remain wordless. The payoff is more clever than revelatory, though it does manage to pick up a lot of the narrative slack from before. George’s reticence is made clear, but there were still issues. Your mid-section sagged under the relentless need to completely bludgeon the story George’s fall from stardom into our minds. How much evidence of his declining fame do we need? How many times must he turn from those he loves and who love him? Toward the end we understand his reluctance, but for the bulk of your final act before that moment George risks becoming a thoroughly un-empathetic caricature of a proud, unreasoning man. Even at the end there is a sense of pride more than any real external pressure at hand.
As I said, though, you do rescue your own narrative and form in that final moment. Are you worth the attention you have been receiving? Perhaps there is a thread of nostalgia in the hearts of more established critics which you managed to tug. Perhaps we are starved for those older films. I found you charming, endearing, but underwhelming in the face of your acclaim. I would gladly show you off to my friends, and certainly watch the future of everyone involved in your production, but I am not sure that I can say I fell completely in love with you. A passing affection, an enjoyable encounter? Yes. A lifelong passion, a lasting relationship? Sadly, I don’t think so.
Brian J. Roan