Warning- Potential Spoilers
Going to see The Artist yesterday, I wasn't sure how I'd react to it. Since it took a while for the film to come to my city, I feel I've been in a tug of war between those that have really responded to it and those who, like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, are kind of a buzz-kill, telling audiences to lower the expectations, "It's okay... I guess" etc.
To put it simply, I liked the film, and it's stayed with me, but it's a little different than what I expected, which is probably why I'm still thinking about it. While going in I knew it was a homage to silent films and the stars of that era, it also has it's own vibe. I wouldn't call it modern. I think it's more of a case of the director, Michel Hazanavicious, who wrote the screenplay, both homaging the silent film era but also bringing in some of his own style. More on that later.
What makes the film sparkle are the two performances at the centre: Jean Dujardin, who plays the silent film star George Valentin and Berenice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, who becomes the hot new star on the scene as sound films become the fad. Both actors are going for a similar style, that of silent film acting, but are also on different ends of the spectrum thematically and physically. Dujardin seems to have walked out of the era. He perfectly captures the charisma and suaveness classic movie stars had. Bejo, on the other hand, doesn't look exactly like a silent film ingenue (hate that word), which some have pointed out as a negative. Personally, I think that's what makes her a great choice. Peppy is supposed to be fresh and different from George. Looking back at the film, George does appear old fashioned when compared to Peppy.
This is emphasized when George writes, directs and produces his own silent film after "talkies" become the rage. Hardly anyone comes to see it and the movie ends with George's character disappearing in to quicksand, symbolizing the death of his character as well as his career. George wanting to keep making silent films reminded me of Charlie Chaplin fidelity to the silent film art form.
I thought the transition from something more lighted to the melodramatic tragedy of George's downfall was handled very well, probably because the film is never so comedic that the darker elements of the story feel like a complete 360.
My favourite sequence in the film is when George has a nightmare where sound invades his world. The nightmare ends when a feather hits the ground and it sounds like a cannon just went off. It brings me back to the point I made about the Hazanavicious bringing his own style in to the film. In this sequence, Hazanavicious perfectly captures the fear stars probably had around this time of having to adapt to sound. But while the film captures this fear, it also says it's possible for an actor to adapt to a different style.
The one choice that Hazanavicious makes in the film which I don't think works is his use of Bernard Hermann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. You probably already heard about Kim Novak saying she felt raped when she heard the score used in this film. I feel that may have been too dramatic a reaction but I think it's a little distracting to hear the score during what is the dramatic high point of the film. I don't blame Hazanavicious for loving the score but the music is so firmly attached to Hitchcock's images that it's impossible to separate them. It's the one choice Hazanavicious makes in the film which feels off. I hope he pulls George Lucas and changes it later. But of course Lucas always makes changes you don't want!
I wished the film would have explored more of the grey areas, like George's marriage, Peppy's backstory, George's relationship with Al Zimmer (John Goodman) as well as more of the relationship between silent films and sound. Still, this film has a lot of charm and genuinely moved me. What's interesting about it is that while it has a male protagonist, Peppy becomes the hero of the story. She reaches the top but is still able to help give a man a second chance. The message of The Artist seems to be that every performer deserves and needs a second chance. Despite homaging a past era, this message is very modern... and very moving.