‘The Artist’ Paints Emotion in Monochrome

See this film. See it now. See it in theaters. The Artist is a film (and I use the term “film” deliberately) about the Hollywood of our collective fantasies, the ideal Hollywood, the dream factory—a place that does not and never has existed, but that, nonetheless, we all recognize. The Artist is simultaneously tragic and hopeful, clever and sincere, exaggerated and understated, deadly serious and delightfully goofy. It is filmmaking pared down to its essential elements, arriving at its loftiest peaks. The Artist stands out among its Oscar rivals as a reminder of why people love going to the movies. Good cinema moves us to laugh and cry in unison with other audience members—strangers, except for in those brief moments—reacting at a visceral level to the drama unfolding on screen.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay), The Artist follows silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, nominated for Best Actor) from 1927, at the height of his fame, through his tragic downfall in the wake of “talkies” (movies with sound) up to 1932. While still in his career’s prime, Valentin meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, nominated for Best Supporting Actress), an aspiring actress who has fallen for him. They are both delightful people, each drawn to the delightfulness of the other, but their relationship must wait. Stars will rise and fall before the planets align for these two. Peppy has yet to make her way in the world and Valentin must come to terms with the man behind his image.

Though wonderful in many respects, Valentin possesses many significant flaws. Married to a woman who is clearly unhappy, he refuses to grant her a divorce, a subtle yet pointed nod to the domestic injustices of this era often overlooked in cinematic representations of an idealized past. Unable to accept the changing industry and Peppy’s magnificent success, Valentin collapses into a puddle of alcoholic and self-pitying despair from which he is repeatedly rescued. Throughout Valentin’s highs and lows, The Artist maintains its creativity, intelligence, and charm. This film is a love poem to those who love movies, granting equal privilege to both creator and consumer. It is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that a black and white film with virtually no dialogue can hold the attention of modern audiences.

I am in love with this film, but I am the last person to wax poetic about a “golden past” that is being steadily destroyed by the sins and horrors of corrupting modernity. Those who would interpret The Artist’s lack of color and sound as a lament to the “good ol’ days” are missing the point. The Artist is not about moving backwards or romanticizing a mythic history. The film is palpably aware of its place within culture’s contemporary landscape. Change is not demonized. Rather it is Valentin’s inability to embrace the possibilities of the present that causes his pain and heartbreak. The Artist utilizes the styles and settings of last century to demonstrate the beauty of the current moment, shattering the belief that audiences are little more than jaded consumers. People are, as they ever were, no better and no worse, and a well-made film—whether in 3D or black and white—will captivate and delight. 

Also, the dog is amazing.

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