Abra Dunsby-Sircana delights in her discovery that they still do make ‘em like they used to
I tend to regard Oscar-winning films with suspicion, ever since the organisation declared the abysmal Shakespeare in Love to be the must-see film of 1998. However, I must begrudgingly admit that this year, they got it absolutely right. Set in 1927 and moving into the era of the Great Depression, the themes of poverty and failing livelihoods within The Artist are very much current issues in today’s new Depression age and have arguably played a part in the film’s unprecedented success. French director Michel Hazanavicius’s film also succeeds in its refreshing tone of innocence, which looks back with tender nostalgia to a golden epoch of cinema, where entertainment was quintessentially a family affair. Hazanavicius is a true film lover and The Artist is his ode to cinema. Backward-looking in its celebration of a cinematic past, the film is littered with cultural references to classic films such as Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. Yet the movie satisfies a far wider audience than film geeks alone, and the director’s use of humour and a romantic denouement appeals to the vast majority who are less concerned with the director’s love of pastiche and are simply seeking a great story instead.
Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, an old and established silent movie star whose narcissism and pride threaten to destroy him. The film’s beginning reveals George Valentin’s stubborn view towards the cinematic progress of the "talkies"- his latest film, A Russian Affair, opens with Valentin being exposed to torture, yet still he declares ‘I will not talk’. His refusal to talk not only facilitates the decline of George’s acting career, but it also contributes to the end of his marriage, which is unable to survive the unbearable silence.
On the other side of the spectrum, the aspiring actress Peppy Miller embodies all that is fresh and new in the world. Whilst Peppy chooses to embrace the modernity of sound in cinema and subsequently becomes a success, Valentin rejects the technology as a passing fad and is forced to face the fickle consequences of Hollywood fame. The terror with which Valentin views the advancing of the future is also represented in his nightmare scene, where George hears objects around him making noises whilst he remains silent and metaphorically incapable of speaking.
At its heart The Artist is an unashamed love story, yet the happy ending is not achieved without a good helping of suffering along the way. Hazanavicius warns his audience about the dangers of jealousy and male pride; attributes in George which pose a great threat to the happiness of Peppy and himself as a couple. Peppy’s chance meeting with Valentin at the start of the film proves greatly instrumental to the two of them; Valentin acts selflessly for the first time in order to help the beautiful and talented Miller onto the path of fame, only to feel the shame of his career’s decline as she hits the big time. In their emblematic meeting on a staircase of a Hollywood studio some months later, as Miller ascends into the Hollywood A-list, Valentin spirals down into a spirit of rejection, feeling forgotten by her and by his fans.
Yet in reality, George is very much in the forefront of Peppy’s mind. The beauty spot that Valentin tenderly paints on Miller during their first meeting - and which Hazanavicius chooses to name Peppy’s first breakthrough Hollywood film - becomes a physical symbol for the indelible mark that Valentin has left on her, despite his enforced absence from her life. Several times Valentin’s closest and most loyal friends struggle to help him out of his depression, yet it is only in the closing scenes of the film when the entire story verges on absolute despondency that Valentin finally and graciously swallows his pride, accepting help from those who love him.
Thankfully, The Artist succeeds where it could have epically failed; as a black and white, largely silent homage to a bygone era of cinema, the film’s greatest achievement is to enforce a relevant, current message. Just as we must be grateful to our forefathers for shaping our present, we must look to the future to avoid our achievements becoming relics of memory. Hazanavicius’s conclusion is so potent and so positive that it is hard not to smile; the future might be uncertain, but embrace it and you might just make it.