2011 was a year of nostalgia from the film world, with four films among the Academy Award nominees referencing film history and two best picture nominees harkening all the way back to the silence era. The Artist, 2011’s best film of the year (as chosen by the Academy), was the first mostly silent film since the Oscar’s first year to win best picture (which so how true to life the film’s depiction of the industry’s very instantaneous transition to sound was). The film was also the first completely black and white film to win the big prize since 1960’s The Apartment and the first French film ever to be named Best Picture.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world as a silent movie star, when a seemingly harmless encounter with a fan leads to his life complete unraveling. When eager fan Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) falls into the spotlight, Valentin uses her misstep to creative a front page publicity stunt. The instant fame encourages Miller to follow her dream of becoming an actress. She is cast in Valentin’s next film and the two have obvious chemistry and he helps her by planting a faux beauty mark on her face to ensure she stands out, even though she has all ready evoked a fit of jealously from his wife. Newly acquired beauty mark in place, Miller’s career begins to take off, and her roles get bigger and bigger. Then, when sound finally comes to film, she is in the right place to become one of the stars of the future, while long time stars like Valentin are yesterday’s news. He is dropped by the studio and his long suffering wife leaves him. Refusing to give in to the power of sound, Valentin makes his own silent film, but it is a flop and the stock market crash leaves him penniless. As Valentin slides into poverty, Miller’s star continues to rise. In a fit of absolute desperation, he set his films on fire and is saved by his loyal dog and taken in by Miller, who has never forgotten the man who helped her get her start.
While it is interesting to see how much you can communicate without sound, I was reminded how much film as an art form owes to dialogue. Maybe it’s my many years studying screenwriting talking, but I was left feeling we didn’t know much about the characters. Also, the romance fell a little flat to me. While the two actors clearly had chemistry, Miller comes off as obsessive and creepy. Also, I had the feeling Valentin wasn’t a great guy, as he allows his marriage to fall apart, ignoring his wife when she makes an attempt to show him how sad the relationship is making her. While I appreciate what the film was trying to do, I was left wondering what the film would have been if the characters were allowed to speak. Also, I think they missed a chance to portray the true tragedy of the end of the silent era, the actors who couldn’t transition because their actual voices were a problem, the most famous example being John Gilbert went from leading man to laughing stock when his shrill voice was first heard by the public (though it is rumored this was a manipulation by Louis B Mayer, who had a long standing grudge against Gilbert). While Valentin is tossed aside as yesterday’s news, the film ends with the hope that he can reclaim his place at the top.
Winning the best Picture Oscar immediately puts your film under the microscope and The Artist was no exception. While the film wasn’t life changing or anything, it’s still a great example of what film can be as a medium.