Together with my husband and mother, I went to see Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist on Thursday night. Our session was completely packed out: there was no allocated seating, so half the audience had to rearrange themselves when it became apparent that every space was needed. Though this is nothing new – our local cinema is both tiny and anachronistic – it felt strangely appropriate on this occasion; as though the venue, like the film, were deliberately harking back to the earlier days of moviemaking.
Thanks to my father’s influence, I grew up watching black and white films. Most were talkies, but he showed me some silents, too, with the result that I grew up knowing all about the transition from silence to sound; how lots of old artists had lost their jobs when the change came through. Above and beyond any historical sense of nostalgia, then, The Artist was also personally nostalgic: a return to the type of film I watched in childhood, regardless of the generational difference.
From a cinematic point of view, The Artist is utterly brilliant. Having opened with scenes from protagonist George Valentin’s latest film, the camera pulls back to show us the screen on which it plays and the duplicate audience sitting beneath, so that we – the real cinema-goers – could almost be watching ourselves. It’s a gorgeous trick of perspective, and one that Hazanavicius employs several times throughout the film. The camerawork is eloquent, purposefully making up for the lack of spoken dialogue. The rare intrusion of sound is used to tremendous effect, a commentary both on Valentin’s neurosis and the significance of the talkies themselves. The music, too, is wonderful: an emotive tribute to the wordless storytelling of silent cinema, and a beautiful score in its own right. Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is perfect, the visual personification of old Hollywood’s leading men, while Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller is exactly the right mix of vivacious and coy – a real Judy Garland girl.
As a homage to silent cinema, then, The Artist is a rousing success. Undeniably, it succeeds as a form of visual nostalgia, tipping the hat to movies past while simultaneously acknowledging the importance and inevitability of change – which is exactly what it set out to do.
As well as copying the visual and musical styles of silent cinema, Hazanavicius has also employed their narrative stylings, leading to the construction of a story which is both deeply cliche and boringly simplistic. From the outset, it’s obvious that the fortunes of Valentin, the beloved and happy-go-lucky son of silent cinema, must fall as the talkies rise; obvious that Peppy Miller, the bright young thing with the suggestive name, must ascend in his place; obvious that the two will fall for one another; obvious that Valentin, abandoned by his wife, will fall into ruin; obvious that Peppy will save him.
And this is where I started to get cross, because narratively, The Artist is nothing more than a bland, archetypal tale of white male hubris where old-school sexism is played for modern laughs. Valentin is cheerful and friendly, but rude and dismissive of his female co-star, giving his dog more credit than her and then, after seeing her sound test for the talkies, laughing in front of the investors. When photographed with Peppy, he condescendingly waves away his wife’s jealousy, sending his driver off to buy her jewels in appeasement for the tiff and then later dismissing her unhappiness in the marriage because he’s too busy wallowing. Only Valentin’s pride keeps him out of the talkies: offered the chance to participate, he turns it down, then later acts surprised when this results in his dismissal. Once apart from the studio, he turns passive and nostalgic, pawning his possessions instead of looking for work, and sinking into despair. At the height of his sadness, he sets fire to his old movies and nearly dies; but when Peppy not only rescues him but gives him a second chance, he still runs away and toys with committing suicide before she can convince him that he’s worth saving.
The only twist we get – and it’s not much of one, given his name – is that, when we finally hear Valentin speak, he has a French accent, which is meant to explain why he’s been so adamantly convinced that he can’t succeed in talkies. Admittedly, this is a reasonable barrier for the time, but given that Peppy finds a way around it in about three seconds flat – dancing – it doesn’t quite justify the fact that he’s spent four years moping about a problem that only existed because he was too proud to change with the times. Remove the novelty of silence, then, and The Artist becomes a cliched tale of artistic self-indulgence: the struggle of a successful man who mistreats the women in his life to overcome the consequences of stubborn pride and be redeemed by the undeserved care of a prettier, younger woman. With a funny dog added for laughs.
And that’s a problem, because this is not a nostalgic theme, or something we should feel nostalgic about. Stories of white male hubris with bonus! comedic sexism are pretty much what’s always been wrong with Hollywood, then and now, and while I can feel nostalgic for the visual conventions of an earlier age, I don’t want them tied to the type of cliched storytelling that routinely makes me shout at the internet. I don’t care that sexism was rife in the period: that’s not an excuse to duplicate it for laughs. Ditto with racism, because really: there was no excuse for the inclusion of jungle-dwelling, spear-waving tribesmen in a Valentin film except that someone, somewhere thought it was more funny than inappropriate, and, yeah, no.
Overall, then, The Artist is a disappointment. The success of shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood has proven that indulging in the visual aesthetic of a previous era doesn’t have to mean capitulating uncritically to its morals or sense of self-perception, and yet, despite being given an opportunity to both display and critique our nostalgia, Hazanavicius has instead opted to affirm it on all fronts. I can get behind the visuals, and as a piece of cinema history, The Artist is worth seeing – but as yet another example of Hollywood’s collective narrative hubris, it isn’t.