The Artist portrays an artist at the end of an era and the end of himself. The year is 1927 and silent film star George Valentin is at the top of his game, and he knows it, soaking in the glory of adoring fans. His marriage is stale, sharing little of his love for himself with his wife. Life is about the next big movie, the next standing ovation.
Enter Peppy Miller – a pretty young fan and aspiring actress who meets George through happenstance and the two fall into an infatuation. He tells her that, to be successful, an actress must have something the others don’t, and paints on her a beauty spot. Still, George is too consumed with his pursuit of glory to pursue any relationship seriously. Meanwhile, cinema is changing from silent film to talkies. Reticent to change, George invests his life into developing his next silent film and prove his popularity. Peppy’s success in talkies soon eclipses George’s fame and he struggles over his rapidly dimming stardom.
The Artist is a triumph dramatically, technically, artistically. Jean Dujardin, in an Oscar-winning performance, is superb as Valentin. His performance alone is worth the admission price. Bérénice Bejo as Peppy is energetic and fun along with the fine supporting cast which includes John Goodman, and James Cromwell as George’s long-suffering driver and friend. Much of The Artist‘s comedy is derived from numerous sight gags, and the original lush and jazzy score, set design, costuming and hairstyles perfectly capture the era. The Artist deservedly won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and so I find small irony in that a film about fame and greatness has itself received so much critical acclaim, moreso in a genre more than 80 years past its heyday.
Fame is a tenuous relationship based on the currency of glory. Audiences seek the glorious thing of film. The Artist, and experience, tells us the public are always looking for something new – including the ‘fresh meat’ of new stars. In return, glory is given by crowds, either in box office takings or critical acclaim. Filmmakers offer the glorious thing, and they in turn seek after and receive glory, either in box office success or winning critical acclaim.
Valentin is caught up in this cycle as both a giver and consumer of glory. But he must give in order to receive. And so he gives – his money, time, friendships. Deluded by his waning grandeur, Valentin elevates his glory through his art to ultimate status and all but gives his life for it. His obsession leaves him dislocated, disconnected and isolated.
In our celebrity-saturated Western culture, The Artist dares to propose that glory for the sake of glory diminishes people. And art too. In the redemptive conclusion, Valentin finds his place in the world as a true artist, performing with a renewed sense of enjoyment, purity and humility – “With pleasure”, he declares as he prepares for another take. In this way, The Artist celebrates the cinema it so lovingly and beautifully embodies. True art is glorious regardless of critical acclaim or age, and if The Artist receives half the praise that goes its way, I’m sure the redeemed Valentin could live with that.