(Published in The Sunday Guardian, dated 19 January 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/a-portrait-of-an-artist)
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Uggy the Dog
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Rating: 4.5 stars
The darling of the awards is finally here. And it’s got us swimming in nostalgia, kitsch, and analysis. Sixty years after Singin’ in the Rainspoofed the silents, The Artist has been hailed for celebrating them. But something about this film makes one want to dismiss the agenda, and delve into the story.
You’ll fall in love with the preposterously self-involved George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) from the moment he saunters on to stage after a screening of his 1927 release A Russian Affair. He hogs the limelight with his dog Uggy, whose presence in swashbuckling period films never seems incongruous. His larger-than-life persona, reinforced by oversized portraits of himself that he regularly salutes, finds a foil in the good humour with which he teases a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Though the nods to The Mark of Zorro and The Iron Mask have merited comparison to Douglas Fairbanks, Dujardin in this character is far more reminiscent of Clark Gable, he of the knowingly raised eyebrow, consciously twinkling eyes, and exaggeratedly carefree laugh.
The film traces his life from an evening appearance to which a tabloid dedicates five pages, to a time when newspapers deem it necessary to designate him as “silent film actor”. While Dujardin enjoys overacting in the dramas of intrigue that the film portrays, his expressions are entirely natural otherwise.
Our empathy with his character is so complete that we resent the innovation in cinema that causes his downward spiral, and rage at the newcomer who derives a momentary, but ugly, satisfaction from deriding him behind his back. That’s why I wouldn’t categorise this as comedy, homage or pastiche – we’re laughing with George Valentin, and ruing with him. The Artist feels more like one of the last silent films of the era preceding talkies than a tribute made in the twenty-first century.
On the second or third viewing, the clichés stand out – symbolic movie titles and billboard slogans, the figurative use of a poster that people trample on – but so do delightful little details that bring back 1930s Hollywood. The limited dialogue is nuanced. One interaction brings to mind the Captain’s slip of the tongue during an argument with Maria in The Sound of Music. A dramatic sequence where Valentin discovers the power of sound is unnerving.
I only wish Peppy Miller had been played by a stronger actor than Bejo, who seems rather too colourless for the role, making the film all about Dujardin, when it could have been equally about her.
The Verdict: The film does have its flaws, and overstates one too many things, but nevertheless, it’s worth several trips to the cinema.