Monday, February 6, 2012

Michael Hazanavicius | The Artist

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Hazanavicius (writer and director) The Artist / 2011

 George Hazanavicius' The Artist may not be the most original film of the year, but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable. Echoing as it does dozens of films which relate to acting and filmmaking, The Artist steals its situation from A Star Is Born, with a story that, like the Judy Garland/James Mason work, centers around a young up-and-coming actress falling in love with a matinee hero whose career is about to collapse, the former star sinking into alcoholism and suicide. The Artist's focus on the quick shift from silent films to talkies is parallel with much of Singing in the Rain. And the film's obvious love affair with silent film-acting demonstrates connections to Sunset Boulevard. But while those great films told their story through their character's words and songs, Hazanavicius' does it with it without a peep—well, not quite! The music—popular songs of the day, the poignant Bernard Herrmann love theme from Vertigo, and original music by Ludovic Bource—is crucial to the film. And, although doubt this will happen, the sound man should receive a major award. Despite the characters' silence, sound does play important roles throughout.

    The story is almost insignificant. Noted actor (Jean Dujardin as George Valentin)  accidentally bumps into a want-to-be chorus girl (Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller), he (trapped in an unhappy marriage) falling for her, she already in love. Peppy gets a small dancing role in his next movie which intensifies their relationship. But before anything can happen between them, the advent of talking films changes everything: Peppy is suddenly asked to star in a new film, while George is fired.

      Using his own money and directing himself, George attempts a comeback, a silent film that ends, quite ridiculously, with the hero being swallowed up in quicksand, just as his life has been swallowed up by the new medium in which Peppy is featured. Both films are scheduled to open the same night!

       Peppy is one of the few members of the audience for George's disaster, while her own film is mobbed. Suddenly, as the fan magazines might put it, she is "everyone's favorite," while George's wife leaves him, demanding that he clear out of their house. The stock market crash leaves him reeling. Spiraling into alcoholism, he is forced even to pawn his tux. He fires is loyal driver-butler (James Cromwell) and puts his few possessions that remain up for auction, Peppy secretly buying them.

     The rest of The Artist is an artful seesaw between the two, as time and again Peppy—a nearly unstoppable force—attempts to create a deeper relationship, George, out of stubborn pride and self-pity, pulling away, until he finally tries to burn down his apartment with himself in it. His amazing pet dog, Uggy, races to a nearby policeman, who pulls George to safety. Peppy, rushing to his side finds him lying in a hospital in a near coma, and takes him home to her new mansion. She even blackmails the studio head (John Goodman) into featuring George in a talking picture. But when George gets wind of good attempts and discovers her purchase of his mementos, he once again returns to his burned-out hovel, taking out a hidden gun with the intent of killing himself. When Peppy discovers his absence she calls out for her driver, Clifton (the former driver for George, whom she has hired), but when he does not appear, she impatiently takes over the wheel herself, despite the fact, as it quickly becomes apparent, that she cannot drive. The tension between the possibility that she will kill herself in an automobile crash and George's slow employment of his gun is an exciting near-end for this melodrama.

     I don't think it will ruin the film to tell what anyone who understands this work as a comedy will have already figured out. She hits a tree, but safely arrives, and although an intertitle shouts "BANG," George does not shoot the gun.

    The final scene is a joyful filming of them dancing, a là Astaire and Rodgers. The pair, as the director declares, are sensational! With so much talent, one wonders why George has not previously attempted to act in talking films. Asked by the director to repeat the scene, George says—he'd be glad to—with the heavy French accent, of course, of Jean Dujardin!

     It has all been great fun! But The Artist is not really about its clichéd plot but rather concerns silent and sound filmmaking. How does film mean? And how does film narrative get conveyed? It's not just that Hazanavicius's film is a valentine to silent film pictures; it is a kind of imaginary silent film that should/could have been made, had that era had all the technical abilities that we have today. And in that sense The Artist is a sort of wonderful fraud, a film that just like forged art works, looks like an original until you discover that the paint did not exist during the artist's life or that the canvas upon which the work has been painted was made years after the artist died.

     I do not mean that Hazanavicius is attempting to fool anyone, and, in fact, the audience has joined in the pretense from the beginning. He makes his act of "forgery" quite obvious, and it is these obvious "clues" that make this work so interesting. When George first discovers the existence of talking films, for example, suddenly a brush and comb come to life in sound, a jar scratches across the table, the whole chattering world is blown in through his window. The noise is unbearable!

     Later, in a moment of utter drunkeness, George suddenly sees miniature versions of himself and fellow cast members, and is about to wipe them off the bar counter before he falls stone drunk to the floor, as if in destroying his visions of himself, he has himself died. When the dog soundlessly barks at the policeman, the officer at first seems impervious to his calls for help. Is the dog barking or pretending to bark? If a tree falls in the forest without a witness, does make noise?

     These inherent cinematic conundrums and numerous others enrich this work and transform it from a mere exercise in recreating an older form into a questioning of that form and of film genre in general. By film's end the director has publicly investigated the role of the artist, director, editor, composer, and actor. And, in doing so, Hazanavicius has truly brought some of the past back to life, or, more correctly, stolen some of our present to bring back into the past.

Los Angeles, December 14, 2011
Reprinted from Nth Position (January 2012).


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