Making a Case for ‘The Artist’, the Oscar Darling No One Talks About

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo) look directly to camera, each with a beckoning arm. They are holding each other close, Peppy with a great smile on her face. Her hair is cropped in the 1920s finger waves style and a bejwelled headband adorns her hair. George has slicked back hair and a pencil thin moustache. He is wearing a tuxedo.
Warner Brothers

In Michel Hazanavicius’ ambitiously realised feature The Artist, silence indeed is golden. In fact, I bet that those who are uninitiated to movie lore in general will mistake it to be a re-released black-and-white silent classic. The screenplay honours the time-tested innocence and innate simplicity of the monochrome era and faithfully transported it to modern film connoisseurs.

I consider this a considerable feat on the director’s part because we occupy a world where the clamour of sound and lack of subtle imagery has smeared a whole generation with unnecessary bombast. It is largely contended that viewing a silent movie set to just continuous music, and without the addendum of a vibrant colour palette, is attempting to place them in the wrong time machine.

Some diminished The Artist as a dog-eared, worn out, diminutive joke. Other sensible people –including The Academy – rooted for it with fervour and discernment. They should know also that without the initial hurrah of earliest motion picture innovation, there would have been no talkies or a more well-constructed enlargement of film-making etiquette. However, that is easier said than done since most of the modern audience yawns at the very mention of revisiting this treasure trove where black-and-white or silent cinema occupies centre stage, as if the two terms are anathemas and cultural burdens from the past. In today’s age of multiple books, revivals by mediums like Turner Classic Movies and the American Film Institute besides of course my own country’s (India) storied film archives, the backlog of our rich cultural heritage in film is now present for us to unearth, most prominently on YouTube itself to begin with. 

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bernice Bejo) are tap dancing in sync on a 1920s soundstage. The image is in black and white, this is a silent film era recreation. George wears a smart black tuxedo and Peppy has a 1920s cropped hairstyle and loose fitting white dress and matching headband.
Warner Brothers

I remember my university teacher relaying how she missed watching The Artist at a multiplex owing to not enough people buying tickets for it and then the showing getting cancelled for that particular time. A large part of our populace hence doesn’t give even a contemporary spin on the past riches of cinema a chance and opts for formulaic brands. It is here that writings on film tend to fill in the gap to inform discerning audiences and readers of the merits of a multiple award and Oscar winning work as the one in mention here.

The Artist lassos that intrinsic aspect of Hollywood’s heyday and is set in the intervening years between the last silent pictures and incoming talkies. A career see-saw then prevails for both lead protagonists as a result of that untimely, sudden transition. The chivalrous, beloved heartthrob George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) trips on his glory days while his fan and upcoming ingenue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) hogs the limelight, only to encroach upon his image and overtake him as America’s sweetheart. What’s special about this film in hindsight after nine years since its release is that it puts the female protagonist on a career crest in a direct reflection of the kind of power that screen legends like Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh exercised even within a male-dominated establishment during the epoch. So Peppy Miller, to me, exemplifies the gender neutral nature of success that individuals taste, more so in the world of entertainment.

Being a wordless repository of its quintessentially melodramatic tendencies, the film beautifully recreates the style and tone of films made then although for some, the screenplay may skimp on its powers of subtlety. But then this is a celebration as much as a pensive look. Nothing robs The Artist of its bona fide artistic merits and heart-warming montages.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) sits with Uggie the Jack Russell dog. George is in a dining room 1920s setting wearing a silk satin smoking jacket with a floral print. He is a man around 40 years old with gelled back hair and a pencil thin moustache. Uggie sits at the table. His fur is primarily white but his face is presumably brown (the image is black and white).
Warner Brothers

In the starlit El Dorado of Hollywood, success wasn’t a cakewalk (as it rarely is at any point) nor a guarantee for a larger-than-life imprint. The Great Depression was right around the corner and with the onset of talkies, silence was blurred in favour of ‘normal speech’ on screen. It was a veritable paradigm shift. George Valentin’s descent and anonymity in the early swish of the 1930s is hence poignant and rings true.

Irrespective of its sentimental traction, The Artist is full of frothy, balmy charm and invites glee for its pitch perfect recreation of the good old days, complete with customary inter-titles, fast paced action and an absolute winner in the form of its canine lead Uggie, the terrier who pulls in a star turn here. Its heart and soul resides in the preens, prances, facial radiance and agility of its duo of inveterate performers in Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Their inherent humility helps them commit to a higher form of expression rather than condescend to it. They hold us by the hand, capture our hearts and prepare us for the cheery and literally foot-tapping climax.

The Artist has a beating heart for a joyful remonstration of cynicism and possesses a never say die attitude, reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times. Made by a mostly French crew, it is truly a global artistic work to savour. So for those still to discover it, now is the time as we need such unbridled exclamations of positivity in our lives right now.

The Artist is available to rent on VOD

by Prithvijeet Sinha

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile. 

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.