Essay: ‘The Artist,’ an old-fashioned movie utterly of its time


Jean Dujardin portrays George Valentin in "The Artist." (AP/AP)
December 22, 2011

The Artist” arrives just in time for Christmas giving. Finally, a movie that comes practically gift-wrapped with a big red bow, suitable for every recipient, regardless of age, temperament or taste. The silent, black-and-white film, by French director Michel Hazanavicius, is one of the movies a critic can recommend to just about anyone, from snooty cineastes, who will adore Hazanavicius’s constant references to the legend and lore of classic films, to harried filmgoers who just want something amusing and entertaining to see with parents, kids, grandparents or shy second dates.

Indeed, I hereby claim “The Artist” as my get-out-of-jail-free movie for 2011, the film I can recommend to those readers who were disappointed by my admiration of the graphically violent “Drive,” or the gentleman in Silver Spring who left “The Descendants” in disgust, or the lovely woman who left an impassioned voice mail defending “J. Edgar.” This one’s for all of you! God bless us, everyone!

Hazanavicius, who’s famous in France for a series of detective comedies, has fashioned a lavish, loving valentine to early Hollywood with “The Artist,” which stars his frequent leading man Jean Dujardin as a silent-movie star named, appropriately enough, George Valentin.

As “The Artist” opens, George attends the soignee premiere of his new thriller “A Russian Affair,” in which the pencil-mustached actor engages in all manner of Errol Flynn-worthy derring-do, assisted by his faithful (and preternaturally talented) Jack Russell terrier. Ingratiating, vain and an incorrigible ham, George has Hollywood — or “Hollywoodland” as it was known then — in the palm of his soft, well-manicured hand, at least until the talkies arrive.

It turns out George isn’t well-suited for sound pictures, not least because of his mugging, archaically theatrical acting style. But the talkies are perfectly suited to a vivacious ingenue named Peppy Miller (played by Hazanavicius’s radiant wife, Berenice Bejo), who crosses paths with George, first as a fan, then as an extra on the set of his new movie, “A German Affair.”

In 1929, just as Wall Street crashes, George’s studio, Kinograph, stops making silent movies. It’s fitting that the next time he meets Peppy, on Kinograph’s hivelike main stairway, she’s on her way up and he’s on his way down.

Hazanavicius stages that scene, like so many others in “The Artist,” with deftness, ingenuity and sensitivity, pulling back the camera to take in the meticulously choreographed screen action, then pushing in to capture the expressiveness of his terrific acting ensemble, which includes John Goodman as Kinograph’s blustery chief, James Cromwell as George’s faithful chauffeur and Penelope Ann Miller as the hopelessly bored Mrs. Valentin. To paraphrase Norma Desmond speaking of the silent era in “Sunset Boulevard” — one of the myriad movies to which “The Artist” pays affectionate homage — actors had faces then. As Dujardin and Bejo prove in their funny, subtle, affecting performances, they still do.

As one of the last movies to arrive in theaters in 2011, “The Artist” caps off a year devoted to the investigation of memory, history and nostalgia, from Terrence Malick’s meditative fever-dream “The Tree of Life” to Mike Mills’s more modest but arguably more profound “Beginners.”

In recent weeks, audiences have reveled in Martin Scorsese’s celebration of cinema’s earliest days in “Hugo,” which ends with an awe-inspiring re-creation of the silent, hand-colored movies of 19th-century filmmaker Georges Melies; in the Cold War-era spy thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Tomas Alfredson eschews modern-day gizmos and whiplash editing to create a staid, adamantly unexciting throwback to the political procedurals of the 1970s, when the movie is set. With “War Horse,” opening Sunday, Steven Spielberg channels the lush scenery and lighting of films by John Ford and producer David O. Selznick, delivering a grand sentimental epic of the old school. (Even “The Adventures of Tintin,” Spielberg’s adaptation of the Belgian cartoon series, revives the Saturday-morning serials of yore that inspired the “Indiana Jones” movies, albeit with 21st century 3-D motion-capture technology.)

Of course, nostalgia for its own sake isn’t terribly interesting or insightful, as Woody Allen reminded us this year with “Midnight in Paris,” his charming meditation on misguided obsession with the past. However reassuring excursions into bygone golden ages may be, they carry with them the potential for blinkered revisionism, soft-focus complacency and the sclerotic refusal to embrace uncomfortable but healthy change.

This is why some critics are grumbling about “The Artist,” which has won a cache of critics’ awards and looks to be a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Whereas the naysayers can appreciate Hazanavicius’s fond look back at the medium they adore with equal devotion, they see “The Artist” as feel-good pastiche, a clever, captivating but too-comfortable nostalgia trip that represents stasis rather than genuine innovation, provocation or artistic risk.

Those skeptics may be missing a modest but meaningful truth buried under “The Artist’s” silky surface and simple story, which is that George’s plight could easily be transposed into any modern-day satire or melodrama. Faced with the economic insecurity of the Depression and technological change that threatens to make him obsolete, George is being crushed in a vise grip all too familiar to middle-class, middle-age Americans. (In one of “The Artist’s” most poignant scenes, George plays a character sinking in quicksand, an aptly desperate metaphor at a time when so many filmgoers feel in over their heads.)

It’s certainly easy to see why Academy members — let alone all those critics — may relate to a film that taps into their own anxieties as they encounter seismic economic and technological transformations.

“If that’s the future, you can have it!” George says at one point in “The Artist.” He could be speaking for an entire generation of viewers who feel as if they’re in mortal danger of being left behind, forced into early retirement they can’t afford — literally or psychologically. At the risk of revealing a spoiler, it turns out all is not lost for George, and in a clever piece of stage-and-soundcraft, Hazanavicius finally casts his lot with facing and adapting to the future rather than staying cocooned in an idealized past. “The Artist” may be drenched in the romance and visual values of a bygone era, but it’s a motion picture uncannily of its time.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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