“The Artist” (2011): how to fall in love

28 January 2012

The scene: an old 1920s theater with Art Deco designs and original (i.e., uncomfortable) chairs. Most of the audience is over age 65. They show us some previews and then the curtains on either side of the screen scoot in a bit, narrowing the view, because The Artist was filmed in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, just like old movies were. That very shape of that screen — virtually unseen in my lifetime except to watch old movies on TVs that used to be shaped like this (still are, for us old-school types) — makes me feel warm and happy, as if someone has handed me a down duvet to curl up in.

I have trouble understanding the rumblings from anti-Artist critics. This is a post about why.

I giggled from the film’s very earliest silly moments. I found myself so attached to Uggie, the dog, that I considered getting a dog. And I cried: the big melodramatic moment came and I was truly moved, with big affectionate tears running down my face. What a relief: after watching the trailer approximately 30 times, I had fretted the full-length film couldn’t live up.

That’s the thing, you see: director Michel Hazanavicius has created a primer for audiences unfamiliar with classic film, and what he teaches is how to fall in love with cinéma. For the rest of us who already love those early films, it’s a love letter. A very different love letter than the one Martin Scorcese created with Hugo, and one that’s more affecting.

For me, the key to the film is that it understands the central, simple brilliance of early film: The Artist asks only that you to fall in love with the two main characters, and especially to enjoy their falling in love. Peppy Miller (Bejo) lands a role in the new big film starring George Valentin (Dujardin), and she winds up as an extra in a silly scene in which he must dance with her briefly as he makes his way across the room. But as we see in a series of takes, he keeps flirting with her, joking, each time requiring a new take — and each time it’s a little harder for him to get back into character to start the scene again for a clean take.

In short: director Michel Hazanavicius isn’t pedantically telling us about the history of cinema. (I found Hugo delightful but a bit pedantic.) Rather, he’s given us a way to connect emotionally with cinema that most of us aren’t familiar with, and which gives unexpectedly pure delight. Some filmgoing pleasures are old ones, with a few sight gags tossed in.

Hazanavicius’s interviews have been great to read in part because it’s clear he feels his love for old film so passionately. Asked by a reporter for Chicago’s The Score Card about the differences between this and his earlier OSS 117 film, he explains:

The most important change was the absence of irony. There’s no irony in this movie. Quick into writing this movie, I watched a hundred silent movies. The ones who aged the best were melodramas and romances. And even the issue with Charlie Chaplin is that people think he is a comic, but his films are melodramas. Pure melodramas, nineteenth century dramas.

There’s no winking at you. The film isn’t saying, I know that you know that I know this is all stupid, even if it’s sweet. This is a 21st-century version of a classic silent film.

The closest it comes to a wink is when the film plays with sound. There are a couple of early scenes, designed to get us to laugh, that introduce us to the experience of watching a film with no sound. The subject of sound becomes a prominent theme — whether films will use it, whether audiences prefer it, whether Valentin might be right about resisting the big transition to talking film. Sometimes it’s used initially to prompt laughter, like at the beginning of a dream sequence.

But that sequence quickly turns to eerie nightmare, showing us what Valentin really fears: irrelevance. And somehow that scene is resonant beyond the gag at the center of it — making us viewers feel the threat of sound, and the safety of silence, at least in Valentin’s eyes.

The best melodramas always have dark elements, characteristics that ring true. One of these is Valentin’s hubris. I don’t want to oversell the film’s story — it’s determined to remain light melodrama — but nevertheless I found it surprisingly touching to see how Valentin wrestles with his pride and growing public insignificance.

What made that story so appealing, I think, was the paired tale of Peppy Miller’s rise to stardom and how she experiences her own expanding success as being related to Valentin’s fall — that is, the fall of a man she loves without disguise. Her need for him is something that you almost feel corporeally from those scenes of her very long arms. Again, I don’t want to oversell this story; maybe my appreciation for it is predicated on hearing so many critics accuse Hazanavicius of creating a mere pastiche. Suffice it to say that I believe some critics have underestimated the story’s resonance.

Of course I can see that director Hazanavicius creates a number of scenes by quoting from all manner of earlier movies — Astaire and Rogers, James Whale’s FrankensteinThe Thin Man, even Citizen Kane. Yet again to fly to his defense, I see those quotes as being done out of an abiding love of film and a consciousness of the way film is always quoting from itself. (Remember The Ides of March and Moneyball? Constant references to other films!) If you watch movies purely out of a desire to see something new, you’re depriving yourself of some of the joys of cinema.

So, what’s the difference between “quoting from” other films and “creating a pastiche”? Again, I’d say it has to do with whether the film ultimately seems self-conscious, ironic, winking at us. Maybe some viewers see The Artist as an amalgam of other things, but that wasn’t my experience, and nor was it Hazanavicius’s intention, according to his interviews.

Most of all, I believe Hazanavicius chose silent film, specifically, for a good reason: to teach us something we’ve collectively forgotten. He wants to show what film could do when we had to use our eyes so searchingly. Within a few days of seeing the film — and reading a few more reviewers who called this a gimmick or a form of pandering — I became more convinced that the director may not be a pedagogue, but he certainly wants us to learn something in the course of watching this film.

To wit: in my theater, you could hear the viewers gradually starting to laugh more, to intuit the internal logic of a silent film. Even though most of them were 65+years old, it’s hard to imagine any of them had ever seen a silent film on the screen while they were growing up. They started vocalizing non-words more — with silent film, you don’t need an audience to be silent — so you could hear people uttering things like, “ahh,” “oh!” and “wow” (especially when Jean Dujardin tap-danced). That low-level, unobjectionable audience murmuring enhanced the experience of watching, contributed to the communal pleasure. But it’s something we had to learn in the course of watching it.

I have the teensiest of complaints about ‘s The Artist — that some scenes felt like a mishmash of 1920s, 30s, and 40s influences, and that however charming she is, Bérénice Bejo seemed too tall and twiggy for the era — but my full range of emotions during the course of the film shows the limitations of my small criticisms. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I just burbled with the unmitigated pleasure of watching film, like when I saw the pitch-perfect grizzled face of Malcolm McDowell in a bit part (below). Oh, hang on, I experienced the same when I re-watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the frothy Top Hat (1935) on New Year’s Eve.

And oh, Jean Dujardin! He can look beefy during his Douglas Fairbanks scenes, “who, me?” disarming during his William Powell scenes, and fantastically light on his feet during his Gene Kelly scenes; egotistic early on, depressive later. And when he gets himself into a love scene with Bejo … well, he has a gravity, and a genuine sense of surprise and feeling, that makes us feel as if we’re falling in love, too. (In a way, we are.)

It’s strange that I loved the film this much and yet it took so long to express it here — I saw it nearly a month ago. It seems so horribly stereotypical that I, as an academic, would formulate a pile of tedious words to analyze something that’s like a visual soufflé. But there you have it — academics are bound to try to deflate the beautifully, improbably fluffy in order to understand how it works.

Should it win Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars? I think its only serious competition is Hugo and, as I’ve indicated, there’s no question for me that The Artist is better. I’ll also have to see Demián Bichir in A Better Life before I weigh in on Question #2. It’s my opinion that the Oscars put up a weak list this year (where is Poetry? where is Higher Ground? why are Moneyball and The Help up there?), and that given those lists, I’m rooting for The Artist. What can I say? Michel Hazanavicius shows us how to fall in love with cinema, and in love with a love story — and I went there with him. I hope you do, too.

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6 Responses to ““The Artist” (2011): how to fall in love”


  1. You have convinced me to see the movie.

  2. CMrok93 Says:

    This was a very well-made film and had its moments where it captures the whole spirit and essence of the silent film era but it’s not that life-changing experience that everybody says it is. Still, a good flick though and I do think it does still deserve the Best Picture Oscar just because I don’t think The Descendants would be a very good winner that will last for the ages. Good review.

    • Didion Says:

      “Life changing” is waaaayyyy too high a standard. No critic should ever claim that about a film. I heard similar things about The Tree of Life and although I loved the film, I’d never say such a thing about it. And speaking solely as a viewer, I hate walking into the theater with high expectations, because they’re sure to be dashed.

      I will say this film made me want to see more silent film, including some that appear to be unavailable. But I’m working on hunting down rare copies.

  3. servetus Says:

    I think in order for something to be life changing you have to experience it again and again. But then I am also not a love at first sight kind of gal.

    What I like about this post is the way it emphasizes the meaning of story and how that has gotten lost in contemporary film which is more about effect / illusion. I will probably see this now — whereas what I had read about it tended to make me think it was a gimmick film.

    • Didion Says:

      I do develop crushes on things, and fall a little bit out of love with them on frequent re-viewings. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen with The Artist; I don’t think it will. But neither do I think I’ll ever see my life changed by this film, as much as I was charmed and moved by it.

      “Life changing.” Sometimes when I read books with grad students, I think they denounce all books that *aren’t* life-changing. It’s a terrible standard for anyone.

      • servetus Says:

        I always think that’s the comment of someone who doesn’t read very fast, lol 🙂

        I think I get the most mileage out of examining imperfect things. You learn a lot from knowing why something is imperfect. And you realize once you start writing that *everything* you write is imperfect.


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