With ten Oscar nominations, and a sweep of other awards, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist will likely walk away with a good number of golden statuettes. If it doesn't, it will provide film aficionados yet another opportunity to lament the Academy's inability to recognise and reward true excellence in cinema. But when we strip away its tags, the analogies, the hallelujahs and the hope, what does the film say? And doesn’t its counter-plot to Singin' in the Rain reach far below surface similarity?
Some call it a gimmick, some label it a tribute, and others hail it as a breakthrough in filmmaking. Most critics have compared The Artist to Singin' in the Rain, A Star is Born and Sunset Boulevard. There are those who turn their noses up and speak of how the film offers nothing new; and there are others who claim it’s a flawless piece of work. As film writers struggle to find adjectives and epithets that will help them skirt repetition, The Artist is often slotted into the "comic melodrama" or "parody" genres. But should we really be so quick to classify as pastiche a film that, on many levels, is a thoughtful narrative, where silence is only a tool?
The opening sequence of The Artist is immediately reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain, from the matinee idol keeping his leading lady out of the limelight, to the encounter between the filmstar and his fan-to-turn-co-star. And, while the subtle references to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and the nods to the likes of Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino may distract or delight every now and again, throughout, there’s an undercurrent that harks back to Singin' in the Rain. Sometimes, one gets the sense that Hazanavicius was working backwards from the lively musical to fashion an almost subversive storyline.
Both films are set more or less in the same era – 1927 and a few years thence – and both bring in the idea of musicals as the middle-path during the transition from silent films to talkies. However, while Singin' in the Rain could spoof the crossover with the arrogance of novelty, The Artist dissects its evolution, sometimes making us wonder "What if?" and "What about?" – what if Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood hadn’t fallen in love with Debbie Reynolds' Kathy? Would she have been resigned to the anonymous career of an uncredited dubbing artiste and playback singer? What if Donald O' Connor’s Cosmo Brown hadn't talked Don Lockwood into convincing the producer to turn The Dueling Cavalier into The Dancing Cavalier? And what about Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont? Yes, she had a high voice and churlish manner mimicked rather perfectly by Missi Pyle in The Artist, but beyond that, wasn't she simply an actor looking to survive a revolution in cinema, employing whatever means she could? In other words, wasn’t she just another version of Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin?
One may not quite realise this on the first viewing, but it suddenly hits us that we only laugh when George Valentin does. And Jean Dujardin's talent lies in making sure the film is funny only when it wants to be. We feel his wonder in the dream sequence with its compelling sound design, and we feel his horror at his own muteness as that dream turns into a nightmare. We share his self-involvement, and want to reach out when his pride enrages and disgusts him.
There are traces of satire, but our enjoyment of it only seems to add pathos to George's downward spiral. When he looks back at his career with a grim sense of self-mockery, we're embarrassed by the memory of our giggles. Perhaps that's why a sequence that may have appeared out of place in the film, the one in which Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) makes snarky remarks about silent films, works – it could be interpreted as a device, reflective of our own condescending amusement at an era we believe we have eclipsed. It doesn't fit into the logic of the film for Peppy to deride a man she loves, admires, and owes – the 'beauty spot' she fastidiously paints on everyday is a reminder of that debt.
Singin' in the Rain found it easy to nudge and wink at the films its own stars had grown up with. After Gene Kelly cries "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...", a la John Gilbert, snatched away by a song is this thought: The Dueling Cavalier could have ended Don Lockwood’s career in the same manner His Glorious Night did John Gilbert’s.
In The Artist, Valentin truly believes in the swashbuckling period films that are clearly representative of Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro and The Iron Mask. Does his contempt for “the future” stem from his confidence in his star-power, or his insecurities about speaking roles? Does he know, before the studios tell him, that the question is not whether people need to hear him speak, but whether they want to?
When George Valentin says with an ironic smile, “If only he could speak” about his dog Uggy, one wonders what Uggy may have said. Would he have been Valentin’s loyal Cosmo Brown, urging him to “snap out of it”, and telling him he “can’t let a little thing like this get [him] down, the show must go on”?
Where Singin' in the Rain cheerfully stuck its tongue out at the cliched titles and themes of the films of the silent era, The Artist employs kitsch in its own narrative – ‘Guardian Angel’, ‘Lonely Star’ and ‘Thief of her Heart’ jump out from billboards, almost crassly asserting their symbolism. A film poster bearing George Valentin’s face gets literally trampled on. He sinks into a quicksand at the close of his last silent film, even as Peppy Miller sheds “tears of love” from the audience.
While Singin' in the Rain revels in its bawdiness, The Artist uses it as a foil – the nuanced performance of Jean Dujardin is enhanced by the raised eyebrow, exaggeratedly intense eyes and carefree laugh that are so evocative of Clark Gable. The twitch of his lips when the auctioneer congratulates him on having “nothing left”, a newspaper headline that deems it necessary to identify a household name as “silent film actor”, variations in the pace of the same basic tune in the soundtrack, the concern evident in a well-wisher’s act of sending two people to outbid each other at a fundraiser, and a slip of the tongue during an impulsive confrontation stand as proof of the film’s understated aspect.
The two movies’ main counterpoint, though, is the relationship between the leads. Kathy of the snide asides jumps out of a cake to pretty much fall flat on her face, and is grateful to be saved from a life of obscurity by a hero with a conscience, who prevails upon the studio boss easily enough. Don Lockwood doesn’t have to deal with the prospect of being emasculated by a woman “looking out” for him. He turns to his friend for the pep talk.
On the other hand, Peppy’s digs at the King of Hollywood only serve to shame her later, and she must don the role of saviour to a man who was her inspiration to give the movies a go. She has no illusions of grandeur, and barely reacts to her name being misspelt in the credits for “The Beauty Girls”. She struggles as much to deal with a male ego that has been fed on adulation, as George Valentin himself does to deal with a life that has been divorced from its image. Her moment of reckoning comes when she risks her career to blackmail the producer.
How would Kathy have reacted to Don Lockwood’s weaker side, if she had witnessed it? What if the producer had been less pliant? Would Lockwood’s career have gone the way of Gene Kelly’s own when the era of musicals ended?
It’s tempting to place the two films side by side and declare that they’re stories of what cinema gained from sound vs. what cinema lost, the point of view of the survivors vs. the perspective of those left behind, celebration vs. nostalgia, but both these films that talk of the talkies, and diverge on so many levels, are tributes in their own ways – to friendship, to loyalty, to uprightness, to love, and to cinema.