'The Artist': Both Gimmicky and Nostalgic

Resisting change, The Artist's movie star repeats a familiar history, that is, the history of movies that's been passed on in the movies.

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-25 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-12-30 (General release)

"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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.