Posted by Maria Guzman
This past weekend, I finally watched The Artist, and was fascinated by the movie's themes; in particular, The Great Depression and the increasingly unstable nature of human "value" in modern culture. Set amidst the early 20th century box office shift to "talkies," the film examines the familiar romantic territory that characterized early cinematic narratives -- plaintive looks, ecstatic eye contact at unexpected moments -- overall, the film successfully recreates the optimism that Americans so desperately needed by the late-1920s.
Director Michel Hazanavicius must have aimed to recall a specific moment in American history, but this time may be repeating itself. His film is a nod, undoubtedly, to a new way of cultural conditioning, yet one that had been building up for years and continues. From the bank bail outs to the ongoing Occupying, money remains forefront in our minds. From unemployment rates to who we consider our presidential hopefuls, wealth and (self) image can evoke strong emotions and outcomes -- both then and now.
As my friends and I sat and watched the drama unfold, we secretly hoped that the male protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), would finally "forgive" the female lead, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), for her powerful position -- she rose to fame as his own career was fanning out. This was the only aspect of the film that I hoped would be more progressive. "Please don't let it become a film noir that warns that all women are evil," I thought to myself. (While fun to watch for their melodramatic content, we don't need to revamp that message!)
Without giving the end away, I can honestly say that The Artist's power dynamic is resolved in a satisfying way. In fact, I would say it's version of a silent film, and that's good. In addition, don't be scared away by its experimental silent film format -- it's a treat to watch, and there's just enough sound (including a charming ending note by George) to hold your attention.
As we exited the theater, my friend looked at me and sighed in relief. Without saying too much, we both agreed that right now is a great time for a happy ending. I'll even go a step further and say that this welcome story isn't "slight" by any means, as described previously in Slate magazine. Yes, it's a movie nerd's fantasy, complete with obvious nostalgic film references, but it's also progressive for the extremely vocal co-star standing up for her rights in the opening scene, the self-made and likeable female star that Bejo brings to life, and for the overt warning to avoid clinging to status symbols in modern society, especially because often the public is not right.
Ultimately, the film critiques social knee-jerk reactions, such as "trending," traditional pride in gender roles, and the Warholian nightmare that is celebritydom. Taking a few steps back isn't always pretty, yet Hazanavicius manages to make it so.