First of all Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist has had trouble being booked in Manila theaters--it took initiative on the part of this year's French Film Festival (officially known now as the Citi-Rustan's French Film Festival) to finally bring the movie to the Philippines, despite winning a Best Picture at this year's Golden Doorstop Awards ceremony.
Actually, it's always had trouble with bookings, even in the United States. An announcement had to be posted at ticket counters in American theaters, stating that refunds would not be given to audiences who belatedly realize that this is a silent picture, and black and white to boot; the movie's publicists (not to mention quite a few critics) practically had to apologize for the fact that it has no dialogue or color (“try it, you'll like it!”).
To which I want to say: huh? What's the big hangup with black-and-white movies, much less silent movies? We deal with unorthodox viewing venues all the time--the latest technological advances have shrunk viewing screens to cellphone size or smaller; the computer freezes every five minutes because the phone line's bandwidth can't handle the traffic load. And then there's 3D, where you have to peer at the screen through thick sunglasses that make the image roughly three-fourths dimmer, and encourage your eyes to gaze at each other constantly, to achieve the illusion of depth.
So the movie's black-and-white and without dialogue? Grow up, kids--it's not as if you're being asked for your right pinkie in payment.
I do have to agree with the publicity on one point: Hazanavicius' movie is a charmer. Taking a page from the tragic story of John Gilbert while soft-pedaling the alcoholism and pathos, throwing in a parallel rags-to-riches plotline borrowed from George Cukor's A Star is Born, the picture gives us a brief (callow, unthreatening) view of the transition from silent to sound film (a transition also recorded in Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain).
As the Gilbert figure George Valentin, Jean Dujardin recalls the breezy unflappability of Gene Kelly, complete with wide-mouthed grin (he can dance too, though not with the same athletic exuberance); Berenice Bejo--Hazanavicius' wife--is a gentle, sunny presence as star-on-the-rise Peppy Miller, though she doesn't quite exhibit the kind of drive you imagine is needed by an actress out to reach celebrity status (I'm thinking of Judy Garland's sweet but determined Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born). They're both amiable personalities that trade on unconventional beauty (Dujardin's dark looks, Bejo's startlingly angular cheekbones and jaw) without digging too deep at the more disturbing implications of their characters.
And maybe that's my biggest problem with this picture--not that it's bad, exactly, but that it's so inoffensive and blandly likeable one wonders why anyone would be so excited over it, other than the fact that it's both black-and-white and silent (like I've said to those with problems: deal with it!). Gilbert's life was an occasion for high drama, not necessarily because he had a high-pitched voice (the official explanation), or because he had a thick accent (The Artist's version) but possibly because studio executive Louis B. Mayer was out to ruin him (reportedly Gilbert punched Mayer for disparaging his co-star, Greta Garbo); that, heavy alcoholism, and the swiftly shifting landscape of the sound era played their part in his downfall.
Valentin's descent is something of a puzzle. Yes he drinks; yes he has a heavy accent. But it's a reasonably soft, attractively deep-voiced accent, one that would fit many a melodrama, and Latino actors weren't all that unknown in Hollywood (thanks to Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino Latino actors were so popular aspiring actor Jacob Krantz changed his name to Ricardo Cortez to take advantage of the fad; Novarro himself worked a few years into the sound era). Plus Valentin as Dujardin plays him is such an affable actor one wonders why no one wants to hire him for anything (couldn't he cuss someone out, act like a jerk, or even punch a studio exec, like Gilbert?). The man doesn't even seem to have the kind of overreaching pride required to motivate his precipitous decline storyline (“I AM big; it's the pictures that got small”).
Hazanavicius is talented; he manages to capture some of the look and feel of a silent film without, sadly, injecting his own brand of poetry (the way, say, Guy Maddin or Raya Martin can). He tells his story swiftly enough, he has a pair of attractive lovers at the heart of his production, he has a heroic animal sidekick helping out (the remarkable Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier that resembles in appearance and spirit the legendary Asta, of The Thin Man fame).
He does commit a major misstep in using Bernard Herrmann's music for Vertigo to paper over his finale--said music with its repetitive melody and resemblance to the “Lieberstod” aria of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde being so deeply ingrained in the mind with the idea of obsessive, undying love one wonders why Hazanavicius wants to yoke such tremendously operatic music (even in the mainly piano-based arrangement found in Hazanavicius' production) to his little fluff piece. Does Hazanavicius really want his picture compared to Hitchcock's masterpiece, one of the greatest films ever made? One wonders.