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Artist, The (2011)
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
A disturbing image and a crude gesture
Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Ed Lauter, Beth Grant, Joel Murray, Stuart Pankin, Jen Lilley
Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him fall into oblivion. For young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), it seems the sky's the limit - major movie stardom awaits. THE ARTIST tells the story of their interlinked destinies.
Artist, The (2011) | Review
The Progress of History
Oh, don't get me wrong. Retro is in and always will be (even if what qualifies as "retro" changes with the seasons).
Still, in a culture that prides itself on running towards the future, returning to a time that seems irrelevant to our present can seem like a waste. However, sometimes, this is exactly what we need to re-examine ourselves in a new light.
It is here that we come to The Artist.
This year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Artist is a unique return to the era of silent film. Yes, the lack of dialogue is jarring at first—I don't know if we realize how accustomed to noise pollution we have become—but the film is so engaging that one can't help but be drawn in. Stripped of (almost) all sound, The Artist focuses our attention upon the visual cues of its characters. It's a challenging style of acting and Jean DuJardin's win as Best Actor at the Oscars was well deserved.
As for the story itself, The Artist takes us back to Hollywood in 1927 and follows the journey of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). A silent film superstar, Valentin quickly finds himself thrown aside by the burgeoning market for "talkies." Once viewed as cinematic royalty by his legions of fans, he soon finds himself alone with only his dog to comfort him (Uggie, who's performance almost steals the movie, by the way). At the same time, Valentin's journey is paralleled with the rising career of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a silent film extra who becomes a major movie star in talking pictures. As his life intertwines with Miller's journey, Valentin finds himself forced to re-examine his life, career and sense of worth in a world that is changing all around him.
What I find most fascinating about this film, however, is not simply the novelty of a silent film. Rather, what intrigues me most is how relevant a film like this feels in our modern culture. For instance, the story of George Valentin speaks to our culture's desire to build our own empire. When we first meet Valentin, he is a man on top of the world—and he clearly believes his own press. Worshiped in the public eye, his very purpose is the accolades of his adoring fans. (Incidentally, this notion is made explicitly clear to us in the film's opening scene where Valentin commands an elongated ovation from his audience, excluding his co-star as much as possible.) To Valentin, receiving applause is the ultimate goal. Even as the world begins to change with the birth of "talking pictures," he remains confident, believing himself and his empire to be untouchable. Consequently, as his career begins to crumble at the feet of progress, Valentin tries desperately to save himself by reestablishing his legacy, albeit to no avail.
At its core, The Artist is a story that illustrates the devastation and fragility of building our lives upon our accomplishments. In fact, even the title of the film focuses our attention on a central character that has emphasized the value of his craft so greatly that his name is no longer relevant. Immediately, we know that this film is not merely the story of a man—i.e. Forrest Gump, J. Edgar—but one who has lost his identity to his career. It is here that The Artist becomes so relevant to our culture. Despite taking place in the late 1920s, the idea of losing ourselves to our careers is incredibly pertinent today. Living in a YouTube world with an economy on the brink creates an environment where the seductiveness of "celebrity" and wealth becomes even more enticing, even at the expense of our souls. As a result, as viewers, we find ourselves in a unique position: we may judge Valentin for his foolishness but we also sympathize with him because we can relate.
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