This review, if I can call it a review, is a piece of prose that is preceded by a long, and continuing, courtship with poetry. It’s been many, many months (so many that if I were writing these down with a pen my fingers would most definitely quiver) that I last cobbled together anything worthwhile as far as prose goes. All my previous attempts at writing anything meaningful succumbed to my constant, fierce (and, at times, ferocious) self-evaluation or assessment. I have thrown away those various scraps of mindless scribbling and most likely no mortal will ever get to pore over them. Without so much as deluding myself that this is going to be a great piece of writing or anything, here I merely record some of my thoughts triggered, accentuated, brought ashore and enumerated, in black and white, by the film, The Artist.
I have been silent for what seems like forever, but the film made me feel like talking, writing a requiem, as it were, to many tepid months of silence.
When my wife — with whom I watched this, and it is with her, I hasten to add, that I intend to enjoy many more such celluloid gems (and I must admit that I haven’t watched too many or as many as I would have or should have), for the simple fact that she, unlike me, has a better sense of cinema and keeps mentally reviewing each film we watch together for what seems like eons after we watch it, so much so that I even forget much of what happened in a particular film, but she remembers each detail and keeps praising or burying, as the case may be, the blessed or cursed, as the case may be, filmmaker; nothing, absolutely nothing escapes her eyes —- got to know that the movie was “silent” and in black and white, she seemed a little reluctant, but acquiesced to the idea soon. I was almost certain she wouldn’t regret it, knowing something, if not everything (Can a man ever know everything about a woman? I leave that to you to conjecture), about her taste.
Long after I watched it, I stayed speechless. Such a film! In this day and age? I asked myself. What a story! What a film! I must have uttered those lines many times over for my wife kept looking towards me, quizzingly, bewildered. This Michel Hazanavicius, the French director of the film I have hitherto known, heard or read so little about, must be quite a genius; quite a man to meet, and if it ever happens, to speak with, my journalistic head kept thinking.
I was, of course, aware of the buzz the film generated worldwide (it won seven awards at Bafta and three at Golden Globes), but I had no idea it would speak to me the way it did! Silence, indeed, does speak louder than words! The Artist, to put it simply, is a fine work of art. And it must be viewed, talked and written about in a manner that reveres it as that — a fine work of art. It’s a work of immense, monumental beauty and it will remain a joy to generations of cinema lovers. It pays a moving, poetic tribute to the evolution of cinema, recording through a sweet little story how the old gave way to the new, the aged to the young. And to be more precise, the silent films to the talkies… That’s how it works! Such is life!
Must I leave it at that? No way! Here, then, is a sketch of the story: It is a story that takes place in “Hollywoodland” between 1927-1932. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, an actor of the silent era, who looks every bit of his character, so much mired in silence that a benign falling of a leaf sounds like a shriek to him. Voices shock and frighten him; he revels in voicelessness. Bérénice Bejo plays the role of a vivacious young thing (to the tee, I must say), Peppy Miller, who sports a cloche hat with elan and goes on to become the sensation of the new cinema, the talkies. Tabloids can’t tire of running full-page stories about her, film critics can’t stop raving about her! All this while Valentin spirals down into the ever-deepening morass of self-pity and self-loathing, after he is deserted by the director who takes a shine to the talkies and abandons silent films altogether. “The public wants new faces. And the public is always right,” he issues the verdict, even as the actor struggles to find the ground slipping beneath his feet. He is out of job! And to make things worse, among the new faces, is the one of that slip of a girl, who had found herself on the cover of gossip-hungry tabloid after she had accidently bumped into the director, and, taking advantage of the actor’s friendliness, even planted a peck on his cheek. “Who is this girl?” the tabloids had screamed, causing things between the actor and his ever-fretting wife to go from bad to worse. Eventually, after the actor goes almost bankrupt, not paying his Man Friday, Clifton, for over an year, and selling off all his possessions, his wife decides to walk out on him… This follows a terse interaction between the husband and wife…
Wife: George, we need to talk… Why don’t you speak?…
To this, all George gives is a blank look, as if her voice can’t pierce through the walls of his stoic silence, even as he is struggling to come to terms with his doom, after a film he directs, produces and acts in proves to be a major dud. A disaster, even!
The public is ringing in the new! “Out with the old” the masses seem to shout through the empty chairs of theatres where George’s film, The Tears of Love, is playing…
Wife, again: George, I am unhappy…
George: So are the millions…
In the many ways the film portrays the loneliness, dejection and dilemmas of a star who becomes a mere shadow of his erstwhile glorious self, living to think about that glory that’s all but gone, seeking refuge in the den of his past even as he is faced with a hostile and cruel present, I was reminded of Guru Dutt’s elegiac meditation on the personal and professional disarray of a matinee idol, Kaagaz Ke Phool. I don’t know if Hazanavicius has seen the film, but I would like to believe he has. Hazanavicius brings alive an entire era. He makes us travel with his characters, feeling their angsts, fears and frustrations, partake of their pain and suffering. The broad ideas of impermanence of things and the inevitability of change get beautifully woven into the story of the vicissitude of an actor whose failure to adapt to the changing times, and, partially, also his (vain?) pride and (false?)ego, bring him to an edge where he is forced to take his own life, but is saved by that young thing he had “given way” to. Love conquers all. Love redeems everything.
And an actor of the silent era — who, in a moment of tremendous dissatisfaction with himself and the world around him, puts fire to his own film and would have burnt in his own inferno had his Jack Russell terrier not informed the guard through his “performance” — gets to share the screen with an actress of the talkies. They may not have much in common, but they can certainly dance their way to the viewers’ heart with a series of odd and quirkily funny steps!
The musical score by Ludovic Bource, including the bit where he employs, to best effect methinks, Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), goes well with the overall texture of the film.
The Artist is the work of an artist, no mere filmmaker. It takes an artist to imagine and portray, with so much heart and honesty, the many battles waged in another artist’s mind and soul.
It’s one humdinger of a movie so harmoniously strum together, each of its strand leaves you marvelling at its eye for detail, depth of feelings. It leaves a subliminal spell on you that is difficult to shake off.
It may be a period film, but it speaks a language you and I can easily relate to, understand, empathise.
It is so beautiful, its beauty, besides its humanity and craft of storytelling, leaps at you and is bound to haunt you long after you have watched it.