Oh, so quiet- and beautiful to watch. As a viewer, I am still not sure what lines I was supposed to connect between the reality of the characters, the history of cinema, and the medium at hand. Since the film is a film in a film, it could be said that there is commentary on the medium itself. The message, however, felt trapped under the surface glimmer- under the quiet layer where pixels formed readable bodies, telling a seemingly simple story. The only thing I am sure about is that the level of quiet created tension (which could have been a draw on public curiosity) and, because it was such an alien idea to do a silent film in the first place, no one will have the guts to try it again for at least another fifty years. It will be memorable because the way the story was told was somewhere between what was old and what was not expected.
Perhaps the film really was just about a middle-aged silent film star who struggles with his identity when the “talkies” come rolling in, but I would like to think that what held audiences captive -because this film did get people running to the theaters- was the love story. Bérénice Bejo plays a fiesty, charming aspiring actress who falls in love with a movie star. She makes the movie about love, and Valentin follows, and then came the audience.
At first sight, George Valentin is not very likable. He is certainly handsome and could be entertaining, but in polite company, laughing at everything in sight makes one seem rude…and that is what he does until his downfall forty minutes in, so he is sort of rude. When Valentin is suddenly thrown from the spotlight into darkness, he becomes sympathetic, because he falls so very hard on his ego. We feel for him: does he belong in the dark, with the audience? Crushed, he wallows, and yet his beautiful admirer, Miller, rises, fast and light, gliding through the rest of the film, where she meets a smiling end with the late, great George Valentin by her side. She saves him; he becomes the star reborn.
I can understand people loving a love story. When Miller sneaks into Valentin’s dressing room and snuggles longingly with his suit jacket; when he saves the last footage of their time together on screen from his house fire: in these moments we are taken from that which is touching to tragic, to outright romance, and it is delightfully soulful. But then again, what is so powerful about finally hearing Valentin’s voice at the end? The beautiful, talented, and very vocal Miller seems to be another vessel for a male lead to ride to a glorious end, and so it is his voice we hear- but why? It is not because they are filming a talkie. The love story is less lovely, because it could make a viewer wonder whether it was really about love after all. What runs beneath the surface plot seems not as much about connection (or union), but about a man who grows up and mellows out, which is quite a commonplace story. What would make “The Artist” brilliant, is if it were about love. Miller loves Valentin, and so she makes the story shine. Post-Oscar season, I say all of this with a clear head and a full heart: Peppy Miller is a star.