Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist: Has the film establishment forgotten everything it once knew?
It may be a little late in the day to review Michel Hazanvicius’ The Artist. The Oscar ceremony is forgotten and, if The Artist did well at the last Cannes Festival where it premiered, the next Cannes Festival is just around the corner. Winning Oscars may not amount to a ‘high-brow’ achievement but The Artist received the Best Film, the Best Director and the Best Actor awards. The Artist is apparently the most awarded French film in history – and considering that France once produced the best cinema in the world, that is impressive. But after all these achievements have been listed it may perhaps be worthwhile to study the film a little closely because, to me at least, it looks like the work of someone who might have flunked film school. But rather than make unsubstantiated assertions as in most film criticism today, it may be necessary to provide actual reasons for this.
The film is perhaps conceived as homage to Stanley Donen’s classic Singing in the Rain (1952) because The Artist is also about an established star of the silent era who meets an aspiring actress, the chemistry which develops between them and the obstacles that stand in their way until everything ends happily. The Artist begins in this way but takes a different turn from Donen’s film somewhere in the middle. The film begins in 1927 in Los Angeles. George Valentin is a star when a young woman named Peppy Miller accidentally bumps into him. Valentin reacts with humor to the accident and shows off Peppy for the cameras. The next day, Peppy finds herself on the front page of Variety with the headline “Who’s That Girl?” and Valentin also has problems explaining it to his wife. Peppy is an aspiring actress and with Valentin’s persuasion the studio head employs her. Valentin and Peppy are thrown together in a scene and show great chemistry, despite her being a mere extra. With a little guidance from Valentin (he puts a beauty spot on her upper lip, which will eventually become her trademark) Peppy slowly rises in the industry, getting more prominent roles.
Two years later, Zimmer announces the end of production of silent films at Kinograph Studios, but Valentin is dismissive, insisting that sound is just a fashion. He decides to produce and direct his own silent film, financing it himself. The film opens on the same day as Peppy’s new sound film as well as the 1929 Stock Market Crash. Now Valentin’s only chance of avoiding bankruptcy is for his film to be a hit. Unfortunately audiences flock to Peppy’s film instead and Valentin is ruined. His wife, Doris, kicks him out, and he moves into an apartment with his valet, Clifton. Peppy goes on to become a major Hollywood star.
The bankrupt Valentin is now forced to auction off all of his personal effects, all of which are bought by an admirer. Depressed and drunk, Valentin angrily sets a match to his private collection of his earlier films. As the nitrate film quickly blazes out of control he is overwhelmed by the smoke and passes out inside the burning house, still clutching a single film cannister. His dog attracts the help of a nearby policeman, and after being rescued Valentin is hospitalized for injuries suffered in the fire. Peppy visits the hospital and asks for him to be moved to her house to recuperate. While at the hospital she discovers that the segment of the film he rescued is the one with her and him. Valentin awakens in a bed at her house.
Peppy insists to Zimmer that Valentin co-star in her next film, threatening to quit Kinograph if Zimmer does not agree to her terms. After Valentin learns that Peppy had purchased all his auctioned effects, he returns to his burnt-out apartment. Peppy arrives and finds that Valentin is about to attempt suicide. The two reconcile, and remembering Valentin’s dancing ability, Peppy persuades Zimmer to let them make a musical together. Sound finally comes in as the film starts rolling for a dance scene with Peppy and Valentin. Once the choreography is complete, Zimmer calls out audibly “Cut! Perfect. Beautiful.” To summarize the nondescript drama in The Artist in current terms, one could say that is about a successful man who comes upon hard times because he misjudges the ‘market’ and then receives a ‘bail-out package’ from someone who cares, which puts him back on the right path.
To begin with the plotting in The Artist, classical storytelling in cinema traditionally followed Aristotle’s poetics and the three act structure. If the first act sets up the story and reveals the various conflicts, the second act sees obstacles intensify the conflicts. At the end of the first act is what is generally called ‘plot point one’; at the midpoint of the second is the ‘reversal scene’ and at the end of the second act is ‘plot point two’. The third act contains the climax and the ending scene. In Spider-Man (2002) ‘plot point one’ of the first act is when Peter Parker discovers he has miraculous strength and Mary Jane notices it. At the ‘midpoint’, his uncle has been killed; Peter realizes that his letting the robber go was responsible for it and he resolves to fight crime. At ‘plot point two’ Harry sees Peter and Mary Jane holding hands and he tells his father (who is secretly the Green Goblin) about it in a fit of jealousy. At the climax of the film Mary Jane’s life is in the hands of the Green Goblin.
It is significant that at each of the key points in Spider-Man either character or one or more relationships is being redefined – Mary Jane becoming aware of Peter, Peter deciding to fight crime, Harry and Peter falling out and Peter saving Mary Jane and cementing their love. In The Artist, plot point one is when Valentin persuades the studio head to employ Peppy. The mid-point is when he decides to stick to silent cinema and make a ‘great film’. Plot point two is when the film flops and he is ruined. The reader may please note that at none of these points is character or relationships redefined in any significant way. Where Spider-Man develops continuously, Valentin and Peppy’s characters and their relationship remains unchanged in essence; all that changes are their respective fortunes. Spectators need not be made aware of Aristotle’s poetics to perceive aesthetic failure but the rules are devised to ensure that a film has the desired effect. When character development has been neglected, as in The Artist, it is difficult to feel empathy at changes in fortune.
The second aspect that needs to be noted is the way ‘love’ is dealt with in The Artist. The story deals with love burgeoning between a highly successful person and someone much lower placed. Now, it is one of the conventions of storytelling that ‘love’ is possible only between equals. To phrase it differently, when two people of unequal status fall in love, they may do so only in a condition of equality – or, alternatively, we must be convinced that position plays no role in their love. An illustration is Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) in which a newspaperman and a princess fall in love – because the princess is incognito. In Singing in the Rain the star Don Lockwood and the chorus girl Cathy Selsen meet without their relative positions being immediately disclosed to each other. The Artist evidently ignores this useful rule because Valentin meets Peppy when he is already a star and she, an admirer. Another useful convention the film is oblivious of is that the fallen hero may not depend upon the woman he loves but must stand on his own – so that their union is one between equals.
A third failure of the film is that introduces a character who it is unable to make use of appropriately and this is George Valentin’s wife. She does not play a part in his relationship with Peppy; she presents no obstacle to him except that their relationship is not a ‘happy’ one. This being the case one is unable to see what she is doing in the film. The only explanation is that she is presented as the antithesis of Peppy – she deserts him in his hour of need while Peppy comes to his aid. One also does not see the wisdom in The Artist not having a villain to plant obstacles in the protagonists’ path, someone who might have enlivened the film.
The film is devised as a silent film and, apart from trying to get attention for this ‘innovation’, one cannot understand the reasons for the decision. Singing in the Rain was designed as a musical in color and this meant that it could get a great deal of humor out of the ways of early cinema. The Artist may be a ‘silent film’ but its visual methods are far from those of silent cinema. Many more emotions, for instance, are registered on both Valentin and Peppy’s faces than might have been possible in silent cinema which allowed only for a stylised kind of acting. This has unexpected fallout, which is that the acting in the film and in the film-within-the-film are identical – which is not true of Singing in the Rain in which Gene Kelly presents different personae. Jean Dujardin, who plays Valentin, has obviously been got up to remind us of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain but he has about as much charm as George Valentin has qualities that might appeal to a young woman. All he seems to possess is a toothy grin which he flashes arbitrarily both as Valentin and in Valentin’s roles. Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller is pretty and charming but is not given enough to do. Neither Dujardin nor Bejo can dance and this is embarrassing, considering that their eventual success is supposed to owe to their dancing prowess. The fact that their incompetence as dancers goes unnoticed may owe to today’s public having no idea of how Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire produced magic when they danced.
Considering that The Artist is so abysmal at every level, its success with the critics and committees alike is mystifying. It is not that there are no great works in cinema today but it looks as though it is the other cinema which gets all the attention. Can film establishments around the world – film schools, critics and festivals – have so forgotten the elementary rules of storytelling that they celebrate a contemporary film which mimics silent cinema but the latest in technology cannot save it from being less accomplished than the primitive cinema it mimics?