Re-enter Peppy Miller, once merely a fan who parlayed an accidental encounter with her idol into an extra job at Kinograph and shot to stardom from there. She has never ceased idolizing George and has helped him out behind the scenes, buying much of his estate to keep him afloat and preserving it as a personal museum in her own mansion. She finds George at the hospital and brings him home to care for him. But when he eventually discovers the shrine and realizes how dependent he's become on her, his pride drives him toward a rash act, while Peppy drives recklessly to his rescue. Can she save his life and revive his career?...
In her dotage, Kim Novak has incited a small controversy over The Artist. She has equated Hazanavicius's use of some of Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo, her great performance for Alfred Hitchcock, with a rape of her "body of work." Her complaint is a matter of aesthetic ethics only, since Herrmann is duly acknowledged in the end credits. Of course, in silent movie days, if the studio didn't provide an official score or cue sheet it was up to the theater orchestra or lone pianist to score the picture on the fly, often resorting to familiar themes that hopefully fit the mood of the picture .Hazanavicius and composer Ludovic Bource are doing no different -- and the Vertigo music is appropriate. It scores the scene when George discovers his stuff in Peppy's mansion, and the music sells the sense that Peppy has been trying -- hoping, really -- to transform George into the person he used to be. She doesn't exactly make him wear his old clothes or cut his hair differently, but Hitchcock fans should get the general idea. Vertigo plays on during the climax, quite effectively, as Peppy careens through traffic while George contemplates ending it all. The suspense of this scene hearkens back to D. W. Griffith rather than Hitchcock, and the resolution hearkens back to Mack Sennett, but the Herrmann music has inspired Hazanavicius to stage and edit a terrific melodramatic climax, and that should be justification enough. Novak argues that a good filmmaker shouldn't need to use another film's music to achieve his effects, but that horse left the barn a long time ago, and it's not as if Hazanavicius needed to make a silent film in 2011 to recount the coming of sound, either. He paid to use Vertigo, and that gives him sufficient artistic license.
So confident is Hazanavicius in his silent pastiche that he can throw off a Hitchcock homage as almost an afterthought. His technical success has been overstated somewhat, some reviewers reacting as if The Artist as a whole looks exactly like a 1927 movie. Maybe I've misunderstood what they meant, but since the film covers a period of at least four years beyond 1927, there'd be little point to making the whole thing look like the opening year. I agree, however, if the point is that when he shows us footage from the films within the film, whether fluid late silents or stodgy early talkies, they usually look like authentic products of their times. Hazanavicius is proficient at both narrative and pastiche, but his film ultimately betrays some ambivalence about the silence it celebrates. The Artist is a vindication of silent film only insofar as the director proves that an ingenious, engaging film can be made silent in modern times. But it doesn't argue for the superiority of silence over sound. George blusters against sound, but it becomes clear soon enough that there's no theory behind his protest, just defensiveness. But what is he defending against? What is he afraid of? The end of the film appears to give a simple answer, but I'm not so sure. To explain, I have to spoil things in the next paragraph. Feel free to skip that and come back for the finale.
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The Artist is maddeningly coy about why George refuses to talk on screen. It even plays with tying his resistance to emotional communication problems in his personal life. In an idiomatically perfect moment for a foreign filmmaker, Hazanavicius has George's wife tell him, "We need to talk," in a scene charged with multiple meanings. Does George suffer from some failure to open up, as his resistance to Peppy's ministrations also suggests? Is there an essential disconnect between his star persona and the real man, as the Vertigo business hints? The film seems to offer a prosaic explanation. Remembering George's skill as a dancer, Peppy suggests that Kinograph rehire him as her partner in a musical (echoing Garbo's demand that M-G-M cast her erstwhile lover John Gilbert, arguably Hollywood's most famous martyr to sound, as her leading man in Queen Christina). The dancers tear the house down in a rousing tap number that seems to set them up as a surrogate Rogers and Astaire. It ends with them audibly panting from exhaustion and the punch line of a request for another take. Confident once more, George replies, with the voice of the French actor who plays him, "Wizz pleasure." Is that it? Has he refused to talk all this time because he's a foreigner with a heavy accent? Then why has neither he nor anyone else at the studio, nor his wife, nor his protege, nor his chauffeur, -- what the hell: nor his dog -- noted this fact before??? A silent movie doesn't mean that people don't explain themselves to each other; that's what the title cards are for. In fact, a film from the silent era might give the game away by spelling out George's lines in dialect, "zee" instead of "the" and so on. There's really no good reason for Hazanavicius to withhold this information from the audience -- which leads me to wonder whether the denouement is as cut and dried as it looks. Is Dujardin's accented speech a punchline, or merely incidental. Is Dujardin's actual speaking voice the voice we're supposed to imagine George Valentin having? Is a point possibly being made about what's lost in sound, when Dujardin can't convince us once he speaks that he's just a regular fellow American, after he had convinced us before, or given us no reason to doubt it? There need not be a single answer to these questions, since The Artist really means to be playful about the whole business and succeeds wonderfully at that.
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Besides being an entertainingly evocative portrait of an era, The Artist may also advance a theory of cinematic evolution. Hazanavicius implies that something of the silent spirit survives, ironically enough, in the musical. George Valentin's existence is thoroughly scored and he's a dancer of sorts. Silent film liberates movement from natural sound and opens it to different kinds of choreography. George's nightmare induced by the prospect of talking pictures is full of more or less natural noise, but two things are conspicuously missing: George's own voice -- he imagines himself trying to talk but failing -- and music. His last chance for redemption comes when he's cast in a musical, where he'll be a dancer more than a singer. As many people now realize, silent film was never silent. It was almost always accompanied by music. Hazanvicius may believe that film set to music preserves something of the essence of the silent aesthetic. I don't necessarily agree, but it's an interesting proposition to close a film on and it closes this movie on a tentatively redemptive note.
The film looks and sounds terrific. Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and he also illustrates the different look of late silents and early talkies quite convincingly. The production design is practically impeccable. The lead French performers are engaging -- Bejo (aka Mme. Hazanavicius) especially, and the Americans have been well cast for their expressive faces. The dog Uggie is a phenomenon; he makes you wonder why George couldn't still make a living loaning his pet to the studios in the age of Rin Tin Tin. Overall, it's a film that'll keep you guessing whether it'll end up tragic or triumphant -- either way would be just as appropriate -- and my quibble about the finish is just that. I'm not yet prepared to call The Artist the best film of 2011 -- I still have a lot of contenders to see -- but I'm more willing to say that it's that year's most entertaining film for me. If it wins more awards I won't complain.