It is quite telling about the state of Hollywood that the most enigmatic film of the Oscar line-up is a movie that recalls the prominence and glamour of the Golden Age, a period almost a hundred years past. The Artist is a walk down memory lane which reveals Hollywood’s longing for what once was, but even more so it expresses sheer disappointment with the cinema of today.
The film tells the story of George Valentin – a character loosely inspired by a real silent film star of the 1920’s, Rudolph Valentino. George is at the top of his game, making one hit film after another while simultaneously getting praise from audiences and producers. At one of his film premieres he accidentally meets a young aspiring actress and soon-to-be star, Peppy Miller. Her character’s origin is a bit harder to identify than Valentin’s; there is something of Greta Garbo’s relentlessness in her smug attitude towards fame, mixed with the innocence of a girl-next-door type supplied by the likes of Marilyn Monroe. The two make an emotional connection which is tested by a gradual change of dynamics between them as George loses his estate and career while Peppy becomes the most successful star of the ‘talkies’ era.
The film captures one of the most significant moments in the entire history of cinematography – the beginning of the sound film era which radically changed the perception of the cinematic experience. The film’s obvious metaphor is the director’s commentary on where cinema is today. The beginning of 2011 saw some of the most prominent film critics and scholars labelling this decade as the beginning of the age of post-cinema. The most recent transformation of cinematography from a theatre-based projection into an omnipresent virtual stream of audio-visual images is possibly just as revolutionary as the synchronised sound was in the 1920’s/ 30’s. Yet for many of us the invention of services as pay-per-view, iTunes, Bluray or Netflix don’t come as shocking. In the consumerist market we are expected to be prepared for constant improvements of our electronic devices and expansion of services offered to us. Many of us don't even realise how significant these changes are and how different the relationship between films and cinema-goers is now from what it was a few decades ago.
And this is where The Artist comes in. The film is a reflection on all of these technological achievements and more. By utilising the cinema’s most archaic aesthetic devices from intertitles to the over-emphasised body language and facial expressions the film brings our attention to the language of film and its use in engaging with our emotions. It reminded me of what once Michael Haneke once did in his Funny Games when the director crafted a very thrilling and at times terrifying story just to expose our instinctive compulsion to connect with the fictional characters. Of course Hazavanicius’ The Artist is much more subtle that Haneke’s Funny Games. He conveys his critique very appropriately to the era he portrays, through his characters’ overjoyed smiles and positive attitude as well as naive laughter and corny jokes.
The Artist is even more charming when it implements its game of aesthetics – most notably in the dream sequence in which George feels trapped by his inability to speak in a world that suddenly gains sound. The film ends on a positive note with Valentin finally catching up with the new industrial standards of the ‘talkies’ era and taking one step ahead with his female counterpart Peppy by seducing their befriended producer (John Goodman) with an idea for a musical. That scene alone captures cinema's continuous evolution and hybridisation as a conundrum for the industry which keeps re-adapting and reinventing itself. The Artist encapsulates that industrial challenge but at the same time it shows that there is no time to grieve. The show must go on!