“If that’s the future, you can have it.” It’s 1927, and Hollywood’s biggest star is putting his foot down. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has always made movies one way, as stories told in movement and expression. He and his sidekick Uggy, an adorable wirehaired terrier, have made millions of fans happy for years, not to mention millions of dollars for his studio. He’s sure of his identity and his art, and now that silent pictures are giving way to talkies, well, he won’t budge. “I won’t talk,” he says, “I won’t say a word.”
And so The Artist begins, with no one saying a word. A silent movie shot in crisp and lovely black and white, it’s both gimmicky and nostalgic, with a dash of self-awareness to make it palatable to viewers who don’t remember or esteem the olden days. The silence is punctuated by music and occasional sound effects, these to remind you that the movie gets the joke of its frame—a silent movie about silent movies—even as it asks you to reflect on the seeming simplicity of the past.
That reflection is increasingly complicated. For George is not only stubborn and arrogant; he’s also afraid. Of course, being the star of any number of adventures and romances, he masks this fear as bravado, telling himself and his colleagues that he’s right and the rest of the world is wrong. Even as the wide-waisted, cigar-puffing studio exec Al Zimmer (John Goodman) insists they have to keep up with the times, George still hopes he can define the times.
In this, George repeats a familiar history, that is, the history of movies that’s been passed on in the movies. As in Singin’ in the Rain— The Artist‘s most obvious precursor—people who make movies, artists and business types alike, are unsure of the coming technology, how to master it and also, crucially, how to pitch the new experience to consumers. Much like Singin’ in the Rain, The Artist is less about the shifting technologies than the identity crisis they produce in George, a star who prefers the success of his past to the uncertainty of the future.
As such, George embodies a number of mythologies about the movies, from their commitment to formula to their investment in the star system, from their romantic grandeur to their crass greed. He knows what he does well, and is loathe to step out of that box, but he’s also worried about being left behind. Conveniently, as myths tend to do, the movie provides him with easy-to-read incarnations of his options, his resentful wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and the brilliant ingénue, literally discovered on the street, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). As George sits at breakfast with Doris, their fine table a huge expanse between them à la Citizen Kane, he ponders what to do as she draws mustaches and glasses on his magazine covers. And as George spots Peppy on the set of a movie where she’s supposed to be a chorus girl, he loves her legs first, her body and face obscured by a bit of backdrop en route to another part of the studio.
Thus The Artist reminds you why you love movies, namely, their capacity to make fictions seem true. George dances a few competitive steps with Peppy’s legs, she measures up, and everyone else on set—from the grips to the script girl to Al Zimmer—nod and smile broadly, aware of the magic being conjured before them. As The Artist helps you to be aware of their awareness, it’s awfully clever. As it trots out movie tropes, it reminds you that these are illusions, however emotionally rewarding and culturally constructive. Just so, George’s infatuation with Peppy is reduplicated in her near-instant success on screen: as soon as she begins appearing in movies, a montage (of course) tracks her ascent, from bit player to co-star to fabulous headliner. As magazines showcase her, fans love her, and so does the studio: it’s not long before she is the future that George resists.
Meantime, he decides to fight that future, financing and directing his own old-school, still silent movie. Donning yet another safari helmet and jodhpurs, George wanders into a jungle, where he and Uggy find a blond in distress and do their best to save her from savages carrying spears and wearing teeth necklaces. That George’s character in the film is finally sucked into quicksand, self-sacrificing and noble to the end, underlines both the enduring romance of his self-image and currently disconcerting passivity. The scene is both comic and tragic, especially as Peppy attends the film’s opening, watching from the balcony with her smug and pretty boyfriend, her eyes filled with tears. Whether she’s crying because of the beauty of the art or the abject obstinacy this vanity project represents is not clear.
As the shot of Peppy in the balcony makes clear, The Artist again and again sets George’s decline against Peppy’s rise (à la A Star is Born or the much-repeated real-life story of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo). That Peppy remains loyal to the man who so good-naturedly helps to jump-start her career speaks to her good character even as it creates some creaky melodrama. Her loyalty is matched by that of George’s manservant Clifton (James Cromwell), as both appreciate his stardom, his nice-guyness, and also his art. Even as George is cast off by an industry devoted to next new thing, or more precisely, the thing that can make the most money, Peppy and Clifton (hired by Peppy when George can no longer pay him) keep a watchful eye on their onetime mentor even as he descends into obscurity, depression and bitter alcoholism.
As George’s melodrama rages and Peppy—and Uggy—must come to his rescue, The Artist seems at last to be stuck in its own metaphor, celebrating its imagined past even as it also recognizes that process of imagining. The good old days may be good, but they’re definitely old. This means they’ve been remade over time, fictionalized and embellished. And that means they look even better.