Sunday, 26 February 2012

Why "The Artist" has no clothes

(Warning - this post contains spoilers for "The Artist")

Tonight sees the 84th Academy Awards, and like last year I will be spending the evening watching a livestream of the red carpet and trading commentary on instant messenger on the fashion choices of the be-spangled celebrities running the press gauntlet.

The prospect of the ceremony itself fills me with dejection, because if the pundits are right, "The Artist" is going to sweep the board. I know I'm in a tiny minority, and I know I'm going to get flak for this, but I'm going to come right out and say it. I really disliked the film. I admit I am biased because the presence on-screen of cute bouncing performing dogs makes my teeth hurt, but I also have more objective criticisms. The lead character was unpleasant, the plot was paper-thin, and the ending blindingly obvious to anyone who has ever seen "Singin' in the Rain."

In fact, the great Gene Kelly musical casts a long and dark shadow over The Artist, which borrows from the earlier film so heavily that it borders on outright plagiarism. The entire opening sequence, where the "hero" arrives at the premiere of his latest film to fainting fans and a gushing audience, then delivers a pseudo-humble tribute to his crew and co-star - a blond harridan who looks ready to tear the romantic lead into bits and is prevented from reaching the stage to get her own tribute - is lifted directly from the 1952 movie.

My biggest problem with "The Artist" is its lead character, the silent film idol George Valentin. Again, he's a pale shadow of Kelly's Don Lockwood, but with a markedly more bland personality. Despite the film's title, he's no artist - his entire screen career has been built on the wearing of white tie and tails, looking heroic and playing with his cute Jack Russell dog. He's a spoiled, selfish man-child who has been given an entire movie studio as a sandpit to play in and who has never had to face the real, adult world. He's meant to come across as fun-loving and carefree, but to me his clowning is simply tiresome. The scene at the breakfast table where he brandishes the dog  as an attempt to defuse his (much older) wife's anger over a publicity stunt which involved flirting with an attractive young fan smacks to me of a little boy trying and failing to charm his way out of trouble. 

Not me, watching this film. But close.
Where Don Lockwood had his highly-implied Sassy Gay Friend in the shape of Don O'Connor's Cosmo, Valentin seems to have real trouble building a relationship with anyone of his own age. His wife is a stern and humourless Old Money mother figure - the splendid mansion they live in belongs to her, and she has no hesitation in throwing him out when his career nosedives. His loyal valet is again much older; an overlooked, self-sacrificing cypher of a character who lives only to care for his master, even refusing wages and preferring to work for free rather than find other employment when Valentin is inevitably made bankrupt.

At no point in the entire movie was I rooting for the lead character. I found it hard to see him as having any emotional character arc; he's as stubborn and self-important at the end of the film as at the beginning. By the end of the movie he's gained a new career and a new love, but what has he truly learned? No humility, no real gratitude - no real maturity.

The film's not all bad. The costumes and the 1920s setting are beautiful, and female lead Berenice Bejo as the young, feisty new kid on the studio block (another character we've seen before in Singin' in the Rain) is simply luminous. Her character has the potential to be far more engaging than Valentin and unlike him she keeps hold of her altruism and integrity, remembering that he helped her on the road to stardom and wanting to help him in return. Her character of Peppy Miller is presented as a genuine talent who embraces the new format of the talkies as a means of creating a new type of art and performance. Compare her to Valentin who knows only how to gurn into the camera and repeat the same film over and over again. Sadly, to me that's exactly what this film is doing - repeating something that was classic and magical and only showing up its own flaws.

No comments:

Post a Comment