If you’ve read or seen anything concerning The Artist—the “silent” (i.e., mostly dialogue-less) film that is quickly becoming the consensus frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar—then you know it’s about a silent-film star whose career hits the skids when talking pictures show up. It thus harkens back to Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard. Unlike its much darker (and far, far better) cinematic predecessor, however, The Artist begins just before the arrival of “talkies,” and so depicts the transition from big-shot to has-been, rather than has-been to murderer.
And just why are the talkies so devastating for that star, called George Valentin and played by Jean Dujardin? The movie offers one principal explanation—about which more in a second. But there’s an odd moment at the end also seem to have some bearing on the question—if, that is, the moment’s oddness is intentional, and not merely a questionable decision on the part of the film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius. It’s impossible to discuss that moment without spoiling the film’s ending, and for that reason, I suspect, this moment hasn’t been much discussed. The Artist is hardly a twisty, plot-dependent thriller, but consider this fair warning: If you haven’t seen it yet, and don’t want to know how the story plays out, stop reading here.
When talking pictures arrive in The Artist, Hollywood producers decide that the older silent stars are passé, and they no longer wish to feature them prominently in their pictures. For Valentin, continuing to work with those producers would thus mean lower billing than he’s used to, at least at first, and he is unwilling to swallow his pride. He’s also confident talking pictures are a fad. So he self-finances his own (silent) movie, which he also stars in and directs. Called Tears of Love, it’s a flop, and, together with the Great Depression, it ruins him.
But the plucky (and much younger) leading lady whom he first met at the end of his salad days (when she was a nobody) remains devoted to him, and so, after he bottoms out, she offers him a chance to revive his career by joining her in what appears to be a Busby Berkeley-like picture with stylized sets and giddy dance numbers. One of those numbers provides The Artist with its upbeat ending that sends the audience out on a high.
At the end of that dance number, the director asks Valentin if he’s willing to do it one more time. “With pleasure,” Valentin says—except it sounds more like “Weeth play-zheer,” because Valentin has a thick French accent.
“Wait a second,” I thought. “Is that why he couldn’t do talking pictures in Hollywood? Because he has a thick French accent?”
I suspect this is a silly question—or, at least, not one the director wants us to ask. But if he doesn’t want us to wonder about it, why include Dujardin’s voice? Obviously, the moment Valentin finally speaks is going to be momentous. The movie opens with a scene from one of Valentin’s silent films, in which he plays a spy or international hero of some kind; a villain is trying to get him to “Speak! Speak!” (It’s not the only time the movie is more than a tad on the nose.) So are we supposed to just ignore what he sounds like?
If the movie were more compelling up until that point, I might have put this silly little question aside. But it was not Hazanavicius’s only questionable move. Far worse, as Slate’s Dana Stevens notes in her review, is his bizarre decision to use part of Bernard Herrmann’s justly famous Vertigo score for one of The Artist’s major scenes—one that does not resonate with Vertigo in any meaningful way.
Ultimately, The Artist feels like a fun exercise, one that shows you can still, in 2011, make an entertaining movie without dialogue. It does not, I think, have anything especially interesting to say about the difference between silent films and talkies. Whether Oscar voters will give it Best Picture, well, it wouldn’t be the first time this decade they’ve overrated a movie about a guy who has trouble speaking.