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“The Artist”: Reflections on the Film

Film critics found many reasons to like multiple-Oscar-winner “The Artist.Almost all of them mention the spirited acting of its two stars, Jean Dujardin (playing silent film star George Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo (playing Peppy Miller, who emerges into talkie stardom). Most critics, being movie aficionados, admired the creativity and daring of French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius in bringing to the screen in 2011 a black-and-white, almost silent film reminiscent of those of the 1920s. And they appreciated the fondness the movie displayed toward the silent-film era—“a love note to the movies,” Kenneth Turan called it in the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote that “it combines delightful humor and charm with what movies at their best have always conveyed: the honest power of pure emotion.” A. O. Scott in The New York Times thought that the film was “more interested in celebrating the range and power of a medium that can sparkle, swoon and suffer so beautifully that it doesn’t really need to have anything to say.”

the artist

True, true, true and yet . . . .

Like most great art, “The Artist” does have something to say, and something of universal significance. Of the five major reviews I read, that of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle comes closest to identifying it: “His [George Valentin’s] discovery of his own unimportance, his education in suffering, is the human education, and a story well suited to this most universal medium.”

The “discovery of his own unimportance”—what can be more significant than such a discovery? LaSalle is not suggesting that individually we are not important, only that none of us is as important as our egos tell us we are. Especially in America, where our culture emphasizes individualism and the “self-made man,” is it difficult to let go of such egocentrism.

Yet, for thousands of years traditional wisdom, including that of the great religions, has taught us that such “letting-go” is essential. It is necessary for true love, compassion, and empathy to blossom. Great writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have depicted such a process in works like Crime and Punishment and The Death of Ivan Ilych.

And today in the USA, letting go of the ego is perhaps more important than ever. And “The Artist” hints at why. It hinges around George’s pride and his failure to accept technological change, specifically to adapt to the demise of silent films and embrace the new “talkies”—“I'm not a puppet, I'm an artist,” he insists. In Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler wrote that accelerating technological change was propelling more rapid social change which in turn was producing “increasing malaise, mass neurosis, irrationality, and free-floating violence.” He predicted that for the remainder of the twentieth century, many people in the most advanced technological countries would “find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change.” His prediction is even more true in 2012 as we scramble (in various parts of the world) to adapt to everything from economic globalization and phased out jobs (like newspaper reporting and much manufacturing work) to ebooks and new social media.

In George’s despair, which almost leads to suicide, we recognize that of many others: the aging athlete or actress, whose fading skills or “looks” undercut past fame; the retired person, who can no longer say I’m a CEO, fireman, cop, roofer, or museum curator; the terminally ill who may feel that all that lies ahead is suffering and death. One of the wisest men I ever knew and a leading gerontologist stressed the psychological need that old people have to still feel needed. To deal with such despair and feelings of uselessness, we are told, especially if job hunting, to remain flexible; if retired, to consider volunteering. Good advice, but it does not get to the root of the problem.

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What finally saves George is love—but not so much his, as that of Peppy for him; and let’s not forget his adorable dog Uggy, who literally saves his life. Yet, in real life, how many are not blessed with such love, whether coming from humans or devoted pets?

During his period of great success, George is a “carefree narcissist” (in the words of NYT reviewer Scott), and “The Artist” (despite LaSalle’s words above) never really depicts any profound inner transformation. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the criminal Raskolnikov also is saved by a loving woman (Sonya), but he comes to a vague realization that his past egoism was wrong and that perhaps the love of Sonya and her simple Christian ways offers a true path forward. Dostoevsky, however, ends his great novel with these words:

He did not even know that the new life would not be his for nothing, that it must be dearly bought, and paid for with great and heroic struggles yet to come. . . But that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know a hitherto undreamed-of reality. All that might be the subject of a new tale, but our present one is ended.

In “The Artist” George’s inner transformation seems even less complete. He is more lucky than transformed. If we contemplate the fate of this “everyman,” however—the man trying to cope with technological changes that transform one’s world—we realize that we can’t rely on such luck. And adaptability and flexibility can take us only so far. What is needed is some type of inner progression. For many in today’s more secular world, Sonya’s simple Christianity may not be the answer, but some type of change from egoism and narcissism to love, compassion, empathy, and other wisdom values seems to be the key. Jobs can be taken from us. We can, as George does, lose almost all our material possessions. Even others’ love for us can be snatched away. But we can uphold our inner qualities, even in sickness, and up until the moment of death. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych lives most of his life as a narcissist, but then at the end of the novella, on his deathbed, he finally realizes this great truth.

Director Michel Hazanavicius is no Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, and his medium is different. For most filmgoers movies are primarily about entertainment. And with its lively music, peppy performances (and not just by Bérénice Bejo as Peppy), and joyful ending, “The Artist” certainly delivers. And what animal lover can resist dog Uggy? Beyond that, however, it does stimulate thinking. One of the beauties of good art, including good films, is that they leave plenty of room for our own unique reactions to them. One of mine, was to recall one of Tolstoy’s favorite questions: “How Then Should We Live?”

walter moss

Walter G. Moss