(Spoiler Alert: This post will give away lots of plot details of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet, please do before reading the article.)
(Disclaimer: I haven’t seen any of the other contenders for the Best Picture award, so forgive me if the title sounds presumptuous.)
One thing I hardly ever do anymore is go to the movies. I couldn’t tell you why; most of them just don’t seem worth the trouble of getting up to go to. Not that they’re necessarily bad, just forgettable. Mind, I feel the same way about most music too, having used to be both an avid music-listener and heavy viewer of movies.
I haven’t read any of the reviews of “The Artist,” and I’m sure a lot has already been written about it, so I’ll just say what it was that made it stand out in my mind as a great picture. I guess I shouldn’t use the past tense, since it undoubtedly bears repeating viewings, and has the virtues of both timelessness and universality.
The protagonist, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is a dashing silent film star who’s on top of the world at the beginning of the story, basking in the warm applause of his audience, which he shares with his inseparable co-star, a charismatic Jack Russell terrier named Uggie (I’m not sure of the name of the actor who portrays him). Valentin has an endearing smile and a disarming casualness about him that makes you forgive him for his vanity; he has a giant portrait of himself on the wall of his palatial home that he smiles at when he walks past, as if it were an old friend.
At one of the many social affairs he attends, he runs into a woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Beju), who wants to be an actress and a paparazzo takes a photo of her giving George a kiss. The picture appears on the front page of the newspaper we see George’s wife reading the next morning (dreadfully sorry I’ve neglected to record the name of the wife and the woman who plays her–pardon the Freudian slip). They sit with considerable space between them, and she glares at him jealously. George smiles and shrugs innocently enough, as if to say, “What can I say? I’m a world-renowned movie star. My fans adore me.” Uggie, lying on the table, mimics his actions.
George’s wife doesn’t seem to love him in particular anyway, as she’s always desecrating his photo by drawing childishly on it as if to mock him. George doesn’t seem to mind; his self-esteem is strong enough, and they’ve probably been married long enough for him not to suffer the slings and arrows of her assaults too grievously.
He finds Peppy in his dressing room, embracing his coat on the rack and putting her own arm through the sleeve in order to pretend he’s the one hugging her tenderly, placing her hand on her hip suggestively. George knows she wants to be an actress; he tells her in order to stand out, she has to have some distinguishing feature and gives her a beauty mark with one of his make-up pencils. They admire it together in the mirror, and are subsequently interrupted by George’s chauffeur and butler Clifton (the always reliable James Cromwell), who’s just returned with a ring George has sent him off to buy to placate George’s spiteful wife. Peppy sees the ring in the box Clifton holds up and meekly retires through the dressing room door.
Before long, George’s director Al Zimmer (the long-absent John Goodman) breaks the news to him that he’s out of a job, telling him that “talkies” are the new order of business and that they have no place for him. Peppy, however, whose own career has been advancing rapidly from one film to the next (shown in a brief expository passage), is a shoe-in for Al’s next movie.
Just before this scene George has a nightmare in which he–and we, the viewers–can suddenly hear every little spoon that drops or dog that barks. The only problem is that even though everyone else is talking loudly and clearly, George himself has no voice, hard as he tries to make himself heard. The scene ends with a feather falling to the floor with a boom.
George decides to break out on his own, directing Uggie and himself in a silent movie entitled “Tears of Love.” Meanwhile, Peppy has the starring role in a talkie, “Beauty Spot.” The films come out on the same day. Guess which one takes off and which one bombs?
George’s wife tells him he has two weeks to get out of the house.
George’s decline and descent take up the dramatic arc of most of the rest of the movie. It’s genuinely heart-rending to watch, as you sympathize with him as a childlike, decent character, his ostentatious wealth notwithstanding. Most scenes find him either smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of booze, or both–almost invariably alone, occasionally accompanied by Clifton. When he asks his trusty servant how long it’s been since his last paycheck and Clifton replies, “A year,” George fires him. Clifton has as much loyalty to George as Uggie does. The viewer might feel incredulous at George’s seeming heartlessness. But he lets him have the car. We see Clifton waiting outside next to the car for a long time; George sees him too, but after he passes out and looks out the window again in the morning, Clifton is gone.
(One scene that takes place before George’s downfall shows him eating alone in a restaurant and overhearing Peppy talking to another film person–I’m pretty sure it was Al–about how talkies are the wave of the future, and that silent actors have to do too much “mugging” for the camera, which gets tiresome to viewers, in Peppy’s view.)
George is clearly hurt by the snub, and he declares his presence before getting up and leaving.
He sells all his belongings at an auction, including the portrait, and is told by the auctioneer at the end, essentially, “Congratulations–now you have nothing,” although there’s no irony audible in his silent voice.
Later, in a drunken fit George sets fire to all the celluloid of his private movie collection, collapsing in the smoke- and flame-engulfed room while Uggie runs to alert a cop to come and help. The cop rescues him in time, and then Peppy brings him back to her mansion from the hospital. When he wakes up, they have a tender moment together before she goes back to do some work on her picture. He goes downstairs and finds in a storage room all of his auctioned pieces draped in white sheets. In a huff, he removes the bandages from his arms and rushes back home to blow his brains out, Uggie in tow.
When she finds him gone, Peppy yells out for Clifton (now her driver), but he’s not around, so she drives herself unsteadily to George’s burned-out rooms. We hear a “boom,” which at first feels like the blast of the revolver George has in his mouth, but turns out to be the sound of Peppy crashing her car into a tree. She gets out, unhurt, and comes in to find him standing with the gun hanging loosely from his hand.
Peppy saves the day by presenting Al with her and George’s new dance routine, and the movie ends happily with smiles all around.
I had been planning to give the movie tickets a friend of ours gave my wife Jina and me to a couple of our new–young–students, but I’m glad I didn’t. The movie was not suitable for children, as it explored some rather dark themes. The riches-to-rags-to-riches trajectory showed a depressed man confronted with his own despair, and the helpless loneliness he endured reminded me in some ways of the plight of all too many people in today’s world. I identified with him too. Although I obviously haven’t savored such prodigious fame or fortune, my life has had its moments, and whatever brief success I may have enjoyed appears to have retreated into the past, at least for now.
Of course, we all have our ups and downs and maybe I should have faith in life to work itself out, allowing I have the gumption to make an effort and the chutzpah to bring things to fruition. But these days it feels as if I just can’t get a break; my wife and I picked up a couple of new students, but we also lost an old one.
I can’t deny that the biggest problem does not consist of mere money woes or even rapidly dwindling health, but our spiritual incompatibility. She’s determined to save my soul before Jesus arrives by supersonic rocketship on nonstop Heaven Airlines, and all I’m trying to do is not to lose my mind in the fusillade of her increasing stream of Jesus-related gibberish.
But I’m also having trouble getting my bank back home to cough up enough dough for me to get the hell out of here so she doesn’t rope me into the inexorable routine of raising a child who will be caught in a tug-of-war between an evangelical mother and a secular father. As a result, I’m having to sell a lot of books, including ones I haven’t read (another way I identify with George). Finding more work would help (I’m only teaching ten hours a week), but if I do decide to get a divorce, it only seems fair to give Jina a wide berth, especially so she can’t bean me with a flying frying pan.
Anyway, sorry to bore you with the sordid, morbid details of my unraveling life and that long-winded movie plot summary, considering you’ve already seen the flick. I meant to spend more time delving into the texture of the movie and the vivid moments that make it memorable. Maybe I’ll write a much briefer, parenthetical post about it next time.
Or maybe not.
I’m looking forward to seeing Newt Gingrich in his acting debut in a science fiction movie that takes place on the moon. The title, accurately enough, is “The Rich Prick Who Didn’t Give a Shit About Anyone.” Let’s just hope he decides to stay on the moon. None of the rest of us will be going there any time soon.