GLORY DAYS: THE ARTIST
Every three or four years though, a strange phenomenon happens : a French movie becomes the darling of America. I was too young to be able to judge the degree of frenesy over Luc Besson’s Leon when it came out but from the cult-classic status that the first had achieved by now, I can guess that it must had been pretty high. Nevertheless, I remember with perfect clarity the infatuation of the American public and critics for Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, directed by Jean-Pierre Genet in 2001. Audrey Tautou became the symbol of the French je ne sais quoi . It occurred again in 2008 with the triumph of Marion Cotillard at the Oscars where she won the best actress award for her role of Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Môme. Since then, Cotillard has been casted in Nine, Contagion, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and soon to be released The Dark Knight Rises and was nicknamed “the French Angelina Jolie”. Quite a dazzling ascension ! While it used to be American filmmakers who dreamt about making films in the fashion of the Nouvelle Vague, it now seems that making it in Hollywood - the Holy Land -, is what French are dreaming of.
THE ARTIST and his two typically French stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo clearly are the new beneficiaries of this periodic impulse of love from Hollywood towards French cinema. After winning the Golden Globes for best comedy and best actor in a comedy, The Artist has now been nominated in not less than ten categories at the Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Jean Durjardin who is competiting against veteran actor Gary Oldman and women’s sweethearts George Clooney and Brad Pitt. At my grand surprise - lacking of what you would call the patriotic fiber -, there is a part of me that felt joy at this announcement. But then, I couldn’t help but to wonder: does The Artist really deserve it?
Certain people I know who have an insider knowledge of the cinema industry are certain that the success of The Artist in the New World is another coup de maître of the Weinstein brothers, the famous Hollywood moguls recently talked about by Peter Biskind in his book Down And Dirty Pictures (2004). It does appear that the road to fame for this film had been planified with a great deal of attention, from its Palme d’Or at Cannes festival last may for Jean Dujardin to its recent hold-up at the Oscars. Raising doubts concerning the reasons of the film success among the medias and the industry is not another complot theory. Indeed, we would like to believe that cinema is all about passion and l’art pour l’art but it is also – if not mainly – about money. So when a foreign film that has not been a box-office hit suddenly reaches the top, one has legitimate ground to suggest that it is not only thank to its greatness. While I am concerned by the possible schemes orchestrated to get The Artist where it is now, I have decided to let this angle aside and only consider the picture itself.
Considering that The Artist appears to owe a great deal of its triumph to his lead actor, Jean Dujardin, judging if the film deserves or not its praises requires to determine if Dujardin’s performance is really that outstanding. Indeed, hearing that Robert de Niro – who was presiding over the last edition of the Cannes festival - personally congratulated Jean Dujardin for his performance in The Artist, claiming that he wouldn’t had been able to do it, was surprising to say the least. Until this moment, Jean Dujardin was known in France for his comic talent but not recognized as being an actor in his own rights. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t loved, au contraire. Most of the people of my generation grew up seeing him on television, first as a member a group of humorists called Nous C Nous and then as “Loulou”, the nickname is on-screen – and now off-screen – wife Alexandra Lamy gave him in their hugely popular TV show Un gars, une fille. Could Jean Dujardin ever be someone else than Loulou in the eyes of the French public is the interrogation that must had haunted Dujardin himself. So, when kind of out of the blue, he was welcomed into the royal family of acting by the legendary De Niro, I was really intrigued and eager to see if he had truly proved that he was much more than Loulou or Brice from Nice, the goofy surfer he played in his eponymous french box-office success.
In The Artist, Jean Dujardin carries the first role of George Valentin, a silent movie star during the Golden Age of Hollywood in the late 20’s. He shares the top-billing in the opening credits with fellow french comedian Bérénice Béjo who plays the sparkly Peppy Miller, an aspiring actress who sees Valentin both as a potential lover and mentor. The rest of the cast is worth to be mentioned as for a french film it is filled with well-recognized American actors: John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller (who was Al Pacino’s love in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way in 1993), James Cromwell (L.A Confidential) but also, in a cameo, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and Missi Pyle (Big Fish). Nevertheless, the director - Michel Hazanavicius - and the producter - Thomas Langmann, the son of Claude Berri - of The Artist are bel et bien French and it is understandable that they wanted to hire American actors to star in a picture celebrating Hollywood and the art of cinema. The film could therefore had been just another grandiloquent historical piece about old Hollywood but The Artist did not fall into this trap thanks to the daring decision of its creators to “going back to basics”.
Making a silent black and white film in an age where 3-D movies encourage people to value special visual effects more than the screenplay, acting and directing, was the first grandiose idea Hazanavicius had. Not only did it mean that the spectactors would experiment the true nature of cinema but it also implied that the actors would be given the opportunity to prove that they really can act. Being a risky business as it is, it would had been even more periluous if Hazanivius screenplay had been poor. As a person who always primarly pays more attention to the quality of the writing of a film and then only to its execution, I have to say that I found Michel Hazanavicius’s screenplay particularly rich and inventive which goes for his directing too.
The film is articulated around the character of George Valentin, the star of Kinograph Studios. Charming and talented, he reigns on the muet film industry and does not let much room to anyone else as his behaviour towards his co-star Constance (Missi Pyle) at the first screening of their last picture A Russian Affair reveals. He does not show much more attention to his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who nurishes a gradual hatred towards him. Golden goose of the studio’s boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) and women’s sweetheart, George Valentin is not wooried about his attitude and fully embraces his status of incontestable king of cinema. His only friend is his dog Jack with whom he often stars in his pictures and also his driver Clifton (James Cromwell) who seems to be the only one who calls Valentin out for his ego. Despite this character flaw, Valentin is not an unpleasant man but rather more like a child accustomed to being treated like a prince and therefore unable to understand the reality of his time. His kind and playful nature is demonstrated many times in the film especially when he meets and then works with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo). An aspiring actress, Miller abounds with what Valentin now lacks: ambition and belief in her dreams.
At first introduced as a love interest for the main protagonist, letting the viewer thinks that the story will focus on the problems she will cause to Valentin’s marriage, Peppy rapidly appears to be a younger version of Valentin: they have the same aura, childish charm but unlike Valentin she is not burden with an egocentric foible which allows her to advance on the path to success with a clear vision. Valentin’s mocking laugh towards Zimmer announcement that the age of the talking pictures has arrived is a sign of his blindness. Just like he had prefered to not see the unhappinness of his wife or to ignore the harm he caused to his co-star image, Valentin refused to acknowledge that his art will and has to change. Losing everything after Kinograph Studios had terminated its productions of silent films to only make talking ones with Peppy Miller becoming its new fresh and bright star, George Valentin slowly becomes the ghost of himself, choosing to live in the souvenir of his glory days.
If The Artist does show that Hollywood can be the cruel and implacable crushing machine that we have come to know through the tragic destinies of actors who after tasting the sweet nectar of success suddenly disappeared out of the spotlights, it most of all deals with the responsability of an artist. George Valentin refusal to “sell-out” is nothing more than his refusal to go out of his confort zone, to challenge himself. While Peppy Miller is not afraid to take risks, Valentin avoids them and prefers to wait for his glory days to come back. Valentin proclaims himself an artist but insteand of being a servitor of his art, he wanted to be his master. By having the pretention to define what cinema had to be, he ended up being not even a part of it. Although Valentin’s situation was of his own fault, I couldn’t help tears coming to my eyes when I saw him desperatly holding his hands one film that he had saved from the fire he has started in his squalid apartment. In this scene, he was stripped naked from his vanity and he revealed to us what was not perceivable because of all the glitter and material ramifications that come with making films: cinema is Valentin true love. It is not the fact that he is no longer a superstar that breaks him but that he can no longer make cinema. This scene, this moment of truth really got to me. I just can’t even picture myself doing something else than writing about cinema, talking about it and hopefully one day making a living out of it. I make daily choices that will lead me to this and this means not being inactive. I am working on a dream. But what happens when your dream is over? It kills you, psychically, perhaps ultimately physically.
Cinema is George Valentin’s dream, love, friend, hope. The Artist is a celebration of this great and unreasonnable love for cinema as well as an invitation to do ANYTHING in our powers to prevent that dream and passion from fading away. If they do, don’t let your pride or your fear preventing you from recapturing it. Hollywood and cinema in general are a business but it does not mean that they will devour you. Compromises have to be made, changes will occur against which you won’t be able to do anything but as long as you know and keep in mind why you decided to engage yourself in the film adventure then you will succeed. Because the reason why you want to become an actor, a writer, a director or a critic is simple: you fell in love with cinema. The Artist is the story of a man who will rediscover his vital need to do his art, with the help of a guardian angel who had never lost faith in him and in their common dream.
Cynicism is a national sport in France and I can be pretty good at it. I would like to go on a crusade against the politics of Hollywood but The Artist is such a sweet and warm film that I don’t even want to play. There is a desarming ingeniosity in the way the story, in the themes are developped but also a humble simplicity in the directing that touch me because I feel like what The Artist's team only aimed to do was to recapture the essence, the heart of cinema and to tell us without a word - or perhaps with the little help from its music - “We made this film with pleasure”. There is something natural, beautiful and human in this picture that gets the right balance between drama, romance and humor. Sure, Jean Dujardin is not Cary Grant but he acts well, with sincerity I might add. His performance is never over the top although it might seems so to us as we are used to speaking films: in the 20’s, forcing certain facial features to express an emotion was considered good acting. Peppy Miller makes fun of this method during the restaurant scene to the very disappointment of Valentin. However, Dujardin was able to portray tour à tour a candid, appealing, entertaining or heartbreaking Valentin, proving that he has range. The rest of the cast is great as well, from the vivacity and cheekiness Bérénice Béjo vehiculated to her character to the tenderness James Cromwell made visible in his own. Even Jack, the little white dog, was perfect in his part, giving sense to the saying “dogs are men’s bestfriends”.
Does The Artist deserve the praises he keeps on receiving? Yes. It is not the best film of this century - it is maybe five or ten minutes too long -, Jean Dujardin did manage to make me forget that he was Loulou but he has not yet reached his full potential but at least, it is a movie that does not try to fool you with a whiny story or a myriad of digital effects. The Artist solely relies on the original tools of cinema to make us care for it: good acting, good directing and good photography. And we cared, I cared- because it not only took us behind the scenes of the industry and on locations but also to the heart of and mind of these characters who are the symbols of the different stages we go through while working on making our dreams come true. Glory days can have passed or they are yet to really arrive.
Although I still believe that Michael Fassbender should had been nominated and won the Oscar of the Best Actor, I would rather see Jean Dujardin and the whole team of The Artist receiving the supreme rewards rather George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the other usual suspects. And it wont kill me to show a little patriotism once and a while, especially when it is justified.
Credits: Edited picture of Jean Dujardin by Bellecs.