The Artist: Didn't This Used to Star Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds? Oh Wait. That Was Singin' in the Rain.

I am about to watch a silent French film made in 2011 about the early days of movies...and I'm so pleased that the sentence I just typed was allowed to exist.  In a world of remakes and sequels and prequels and adaptations, it's so heartening that someone took a chance on a concept like this and allowed it the opportunity to succeed.  Even if I don't come out of this liking the film, it's still a win for me.

George Valentin is one of America's most beloved silent stars in the late 1920s.  At one of his premieres, he meets an aspiring young actress named Peppy Miller, and sparks fly.  She's a glorified extra in his latest film, and the two of them are too busy flirting to get a decent take in.  George finds her creeping around in his dressing room, and...paints a beauty spot on her face?  Cause apparently all you need to stand out in Hollywood is a nicely placed birthmark.

Anyway, things are going pretty well for George -- UNTIL THE TALKIES ARE INVENTED.

He is so 100% offended by the concept of talking pictures, he and his studio part ways.  George decides that he's going to keep making silent films on his own, without any studio backing.  Who do you think you are, Charlie Chaplin?

This, as it turns out, is a colossal failure, and his stock falls pretty quickly, while Peppy is becoming the new Hollywood star.  Oh, speaking of stocks -- Stock Market Crash.  George loses all his money.  Sad times forever.  The film then follows him on his downward spiral, while he is forced to pawn his fancy suit, auction off all of his worldly possessions, fire his butler, and get his ass divorced by his wife.  I realize these are first world problems, but it's still pretty depressing.  Especially when James Cromwell (the butler/chauffeur) just stands outside pathetically all night long, waiting by the car, hoping that George will unfire him.

James, is it so much to ask that you allow me to keep my heart in one piece?

One day, George goes on a bender, burning all of his films with the fervor of the BBC destroying episodes of Doctor Who.  Unfortunately, the side effect of starting a big ole fire in your living room is that your house burns down and you're stuck in it.  Unless you happen to have a wonder dog, who can run outside and magically communicate with the police to let them know that you need help.  Which George does.

Peppy finds out about the fire and decides she wants to help him.  She even goes so far as to negotiate a deal that will give him his career back.  After all, he did give her the all-important mole, she owes him.  George is all bleh I feel emasculated, runs away like a little girl, and tries to kill himself.  Peppy gets there before he can do anything, and they come up with the idea to reinvent his career as a dancer...that way he doesn't really have to talk.

Flash forward to Peppy and George starring in a musical, and all is well. Yay!

Random Musings:

  • Love that this asshole's got a life-sized painting of himself hanging in his mansion.  That kind of tackiness just screams epic fall from grace.

  • I love the reference to Citizen Kane, with him and his wife getting more and more buttoned up at breakfast to symbolize how they're growing further apart.  Somebody's taken Introduction to American Cinema.

  • How cool is this shot?

  • I really like the montage sequence showing Peppy Miller's rise to fame.  Especially since in the first film she does, they spell her name wrong.  Cause who hasn't been there?

  • Ugh, these movies always make me so sad.  When someone is on the top of the world and falls to irrelevance and redundancy.  If somebody made a film about how the typewriter felt when the computer came along, I'd probably cry through that too.

  • I think George Valentin might be the reason why there are so many lost silent films.  I mean, if he's going to start burning them all every time he's drunk and depressed!

  • Seriously, the dog is the star of the movie.  He is the one who deserves the accolades, the awards, and all of the snausages.

  • Awww OMG the one print that he saves is the film he worked on with Peppy.  That is so sweet!

  • I love when Peppy tries to get all tough and give John Goodman an ultimatum about letting George in the film...and does a terrible job.  Like, she has to confirm that she's blackmailing him.

  • I love the image of him walking into that spare room and finding all of his old possessions covered in white sheets...the ghosts of his past.

So that's The Artist.  It's a really interesting concept and I think it's executed well here.  Also, it's really just a relief to see something different once in a while.  Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are both perfect for their roles, in that they embody the 1920s film stars and are both so expressive that they can manage in a film where they're not allowed to talk.

Sound, oddly enough, is brilliantly used in this film.  I think it's really clever and a great way to depict his fears.  Even though he makes fun of the sound films and thinks they're inferior to silent films, there's definitely a lot more to his refusals than that.  He's clearly afraid of failure in sound, that people won't be interested in hearing him talk.  Which was definitely a common concern for silent film actors, especially those whose voices didn't necessarily match their screen persona.  A lot of people commonly refer to John Gilbert as an example of an actor whose career died because of sound, and they say that he had a really high-pitched voice that audiences couldn't take seriously.  That's not quite true.  His voice was actually quite just didn't match the image of the romantic hero that he had cultivated over the years.  

George may also have been concerned about his accent.  In the last scene, his only spoken line reveals that he speaks with a French accent.  While foreign accents usually didn't ruin careers during the transition to sound (look at Greta Garbo), it's easy to see why that sort of thing would cause anxiety.  It's funny, though, because interviews with the creative team of this film indicate that they hadn't even thought of his accent as a reason why he didn't want to do speaking roles.  They're French, obviously, so I'm sure the French accent didn't even cross their minds.  But for me, the idea that his fear of failure in sound film derives, at least in part, from his foreign accent...well, that makes a lot of sense.  And I think it adds depth to the film.  So I'm sticking with that story.

I think it's interesting that this film and Hugo, both of which have a primary objective of celebrating old movies and the art of cinema, were nominated for Best Picture.  Filmmakers love to love filmmaking, right?  Although at the moment, I'm leaning slightly more in favor of Hugo in terms of which film I liked better, I did really enjoy The Artist and applaud its artistic efforts.  Well done, France!

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Llamastrangler said...

I just assumed that the big reveal of George's French accent was supposed to explain why he'd been so nervous about the talkies. It seemed to be set up so neatly.

I loved this, but it's very strange to occasionally see a contemporary actor like James Cromwell or Malcolm McDowell in a period silent film!

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