Film title: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman
Distributor: The Weinstein Company (USA); Entertainment Film Distributors (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 23 November 2011 (USA); 30 December 2011 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); PG (UK) Contains scene of mild threat

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According to George Lucas, 'Watching a movie in 3D is simply a better way to watch a movie. It's like black and white versus colour. Watching a movie in black and white is fine, however, colour makes it look more real.' Many viewers are unconvinced. Michel Hazanavicius, writer and director of The Artist, has proved, to everyone's surprise, that viewers are not only content to watch a film in 2D, they will happily do without the colour, the widescreen format and even the sound. Arguably, making a film that looks like something made in the early 30s is as much of a gimmick as making objects fly out of the screen in 3D, but films that rely entirely on novelty don't become enormous critical and popular successes. And that is exactly what has happened to The Artist (unlike Lucas's 3D version of Star Wars Episode 1: Phantom Menace).

The Artist could easily have become nothing more than a festival film, doing well at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and other celebrations of film, but never reaching much of the cinema-going audience. But in part thanks to its champion, Harvey Weinstein, it has delighted audiences everywhere. Weinstein threw the weight of his publicity machine behind the film, ensuring that it became a prominent feature on the radars of the Academy voters as the Oscars drew near - a strategy which paid off. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has now awarded Weinstein the Légion D'honneur for his 'great friendship' to French film. Of course, the success of The Artist is not entirely down to Weinstein. While film critics' enthusiasm does not always equate with box office success, it certainly made a difference that reviewers were gushing in their praise for The Artist, its writer/director, and its stars. But what a film most needs to do well is word of mouth, and The Artist generated a torrent. Audiences were so captivated by the film that it quickly spread from art-house cinemas to the multiplexes, where it has been seen by people who would never normally consider watching something out of the mainstream.

Why has The Artist charmed viewers so much, when it goes right against the grain of contemporary cinema? Almost every aspect of the film-making has been acclaimed: direction, cinematography, Ludovic Bource's score, the design, and especially the performances. Jean Dujardin's looks, his expressive face and great comic timing have won him many fans, as well as an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a clutch of other awards. He brilliantly conveys the narcissistic arrogance of Valentin the star, and his decline into despair. Bérénice Bejo is perfect for her role, and has picked up a few awards and some major nominations. For many viewers, though, the film's greatest star is Uggie the Jack Russell terrier, who inspired a campaign for him to receive an Oscar nomination.

However, what audiences want above all is a compelling narrative, conveyed with sincerity and genuine emotion, which is what the vast majority of viewers found in The Artist. This is the story of George Valentin (Dujardin), a dashing star of silent movies who, at a film premiere, takes a fancy to a pretty young woman, Peppy (Bejo), in the crowd, and she is soon appearing in Valentin's films. When film sound appears in 1929, George wants nothing to do with it and disastrously sets about producing his own silent movie. The failure, followed by the Wall Street crash, leaves him in poverty, with only the talented and ever-loyal Uggie for a friend. Peppy, however, has the voice as well as the face to succeed in talkies, and rapidly becomes a star. It's a story which owes more than a little to Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born, and audiences love it.

Valentin's riches to rags story has some contemporary resonance. There are many people who can identify with him losing everything in very short order. Indeed, any story featuring the Wall Street crash is bound to make viewers reflect on parallels with the current financial crisis. Valentin is crushed by his experience, and audiences feel great sympathy for him. But is he unnecessarily crushed? We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.

The seeds of George's problem were sown long before his career nosedived. He based his life and, crucially, his identity on his success and status as a star. It's a mistake that many people – especially men – make. We define ourselves by what we do, or perhaps more to the point, by how others perceive us because of what we do. It's a form of idolatry – centring ourselves on something that is not God – and idols always let us down. If our identities are constructed around what we do, then they are vulnerable to changing circumstances. What happens when we become incapable of doing whatever it is because of accident or illness? What happens when someone comes along who can do it better? What happens when our precious abilities become redundant because the world has changed around us? And even when things are going well, equating our sense of identity with what we do constricts us and diminishes our humanity: we downplay important dimensions of life; we make decisions based on what will serve our goals rather than on what is morally good; we reduce other people to tools to assist our personal project.

This, surely, is what has happened in George's marriage: his wife Doris (Penelope Anne Miller) is incidental to his glamorous life. Peppy, however, fits into his world. It is true that George's attraction to Peppy never develops into a physical relationship, but, as Jesus made clear, what we think is as problematic as what we do.[1] C.S. Lewis paraphrased Jesus's point: 'He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.' Doris may be relieved that George isn't having a sexual affair with Peppy, but George still rejects her in favour of nourishing emotional intimacy with another woman.

This is clearly not the point of The Artist, though. It is an expression of love for Hollywood (no surprise that the Academy voters were so enamoured of this and Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which also celebrates film history). The trouble is that Hollywood has become a byword for superficiality and glib happy endings. The Artist does nothing to critique Hollywood's preoccupation with itself, its glitz and glamour, and ends up as superficial as the object of its adoration. In this world, it seems, the greatest disaster is to cease to be a star, and the greatest achievement is to become one. As Jeffrey Overstreet remarked in his review:

The Artist is, in my opinion, not only frivolous — it's irresponsible in its glorification of fame, fortune, and glamour. . . . this movie seemed to me to be 100 minutes of slick-looking, engaging, ebullient song and dance in service of . . . what, exactly? There's the rub. You may smile and smile, and be a villain.[2]

Yet The Artist has won the hearts of audiences and critics alike. Perhaps we just don't stop to think about its frivolity when we're having so much fun. Perhaps the black and white, silent-movie gimmick makes watching it such an unusual experience that we don't realise how banal we would find the story if told in a more conventional way. Or perhaps it's that Hollywood has seduced us all into believing that glamour and stardom are actually something important. We don't talk about screen idols any more. Perhaps we should.

[1] Matthew 5:27-28

[2] Jeffrey Overstreet, 'The Artist (2011, Hazanavicius)', Filmwell, 9 January 2012

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Author: Tony Watkins
© Copyright: Tony Watkins 2012