In all the pre- and post-Oscar hype surrounding Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, I never once heard anyone talk about the story. It was spoken about more for being a black-and-white, mostly silent film about films than for any other merit. I’ve read reams about how it didn’t deserve the Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Actor Oscars; how it only won because it’s a silent black-and-white movie by a French director with a French actor or because it’s a movie about movies; and how George Clooney in The Descendants was unfairly done out of an award that should have been his. I haven’t seen all the other Oscar nominated movies, but I have seen The Descendants (twice) and can safely say that in my humble opinion, Clooney was only very good. In The Artist, however, Jean Dujardin delivers a performance that transcends time and sense.
The story revolves around George Valentin (Dujardin), the star of the silent era, who refuses to accept that the talkies are here to stay. Arrogant and unable to envision a future in which just seeing him is not enough for the audience, he leaves Kinograph Studios, the production house that has churned out his hits in the past, and decides to make his own films. Kinograph has signed on a slew of newcomers who have no objection to the talkies. One of these is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who has so far been an extra in some of Valentin’s films, and has always had a bit of a crush on him. Predictably, Valentin’s film bombs while Miller’s is a smash hit, and she herself is the toast of the town. Meanwhile, Valentin is reduced to auctioning off his belongings to make ends meet. His wife, having tried to explain to him how unhappy she is in their marriage, finally leaves him. In his depression and fragile state of mind, the only people Valentin can depend on are Miller and his old assistant (who now works for Miller after Valentin let him go because he couldn’t pay him).
Is The Artist a great, epic story? No. It’s a simple story that follows a fairly predictable path, with even a cute puppy thrown in to take the action forward. Is the torment of silent film actors portrayed in a way that makes you weep for them? No, in fact, the overall tone of the film is light and humorous. Is the movie, then, a worthy winner of all the awards it has scooped in the last few months? I can’t answer that without having seen all the other movies that have been released in the last year, and frankly, I don’t think anyone can. But despite all of this, it is a truly special film that comes along once in a lifetime today. The treatment is so beautiful that every scene, every frame brims over with detail that you’d be hard-pressed to miss, given the lack of distracting speech. The lightness of tone is, in my view, a major winning point for the film because The Artist is, after all, a fond, nostalgic look at a bygone era of typically comic films. The acting is top-notch, with both Dujardin and Bejo inspiring affection, laughter, and a desire to dance in the audience.
Even if critics and juries were a tiny bit partial to it for being a mostly silent black-and-white movie, is that so wrong? Movies and movie-makers win awards for so many different reasons – some for highlighting social issues, some for being humongous hits at the box office, some for daring to do something different. The Artist may not be an amazing story, but it is a work of art that is rare for today’s cinema. And no one can doubt the sheer courage it must have taken to create it. Isn’t that in itself worth awarding?