The idea of making a film about the American cinema between 1927 and 1933 seems as daunting a prospect as making a film about the entire cinema—in other words, the difference between conceiving the magnitude of a galaxy and the magnitude of the universe. You might as well make a 100-minute film about the Renaissance. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist neatly sidesteps this unsolvable dilemma by ignoring everything that’s fascinating and memorable about the era, focusing instead on a patchwork of general knowledge, so eroded of inconvenient facts that it doesn’t even qualify as a roman à clef.
The 1927-1933 period witnessed an almost unquantifiable number of movies whose greatness remains unchallenged, from auteurs such as Josef von Sternberg, F.W. Murnau, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Borzage, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, Charlie Chaplin, as well as, more controversially (since conventional wisdom places their creative peaks as pre-1927), Buster Keaton, Erich von Stroheim, and D.W. Griffith. The Artist simply cannot be bothered with any of those old fossils, and goes full steam ahead with the presumption that the silent cinema was most accurately depicted in Singin’ in the Rain, i.e. stolid costume dramas, hysterically acted against cardboard sets.
Jean Dujardin, as likely a candidate for the Best Actor Oscar as anyone else this year, plays George Valentin. The character name refers to the legendary Rudolph Valentino, but his appearance and riches-to-rags storyline clearly lifts from the tragic downfall of silent star John Gilbert. Gilbert, who is now better remembered for his romance with Greta Garbo than his career as an actor, was, during the silent era, one of America’s greatest stars. Clashes with MGM head Louis B. Mayer, and his own alcoholism, sent his career into an irreversible, downward spiral. Garbo, who loved him dearly even as he self-destructed, attempted to help him at every opportunity; his penultimate film is also one of her most iconic, Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina.
The 1920s and ’30s are full of tragic stories like that, of actors and actresses perishing in obscurity, misadventure, scandal, or sheer misfortune. For every screen icon who lived to a ripe, old age, like Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, there’s a Jean Harlow (renal failure, 1937), Jeanne Eagels (heroin overdose, 1929), Sidney Fox (overdose of sleeping pills, 1942), or Carole Lombard (airplane crash, 1942), and those are just a few examples. Furthermore, the period of American movies from 1930 to 1934 are now referred to as the “pre-Code era,” as it became apparent to certain bodies of American morality that Tinseltown, with its off-screen scandals and on-screen amorality, was becoming a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, and needed to be saved from itself. To say that The Artist wallpapers over this stuff would be an understatement.
Garbo, who lived until 1990, met her star status with varying degrees of combativeness, mostly out of concern for her privacy, undoubtedly disillusioned by the way the town seemed to empty the vessel of Gilbert’s stardom and cast it aside. Her reticence was such that it became a selling point for Ninotchka, and she retired from pictures after she made Two-Faced Woman for MGM, in 1941. The Artist pays tribute to Garbo almost with a shrug, when Bérénice Bejo says, “I want to be alone,” but Bejo’s Peppy Miller is no more Garbo than Dujardin’s Valentin is Fred Astaire. Bejo is a delight, but Miller is every starlet of the era, and none of them.
Valentin, on the other hand, embodies Mayer and the gossip rag’s version of Gilbert’s failure, that he didn’t have the voice for talkies, that he couldn’t act in talkies, and that he was a wash-up. (Valentin is also an alcoholic, but the movie treats this as incidental comedy fodder.) That, in short, is the crux of The Artist’s problem. It would be the easiest thing to forgive Hazanavicious and company’s inability to properly assess the subject of “American Cinema, 1927-1933,” or “Hollywood’s Transition From Silents to Talkies,” if the path they chose wasn’t defined by a lazy, to the point of contemptuous, attitude toward said subjects, in the vehicle of a rehash of A Star Is Born so anemic, it makes the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson version look good in comparison.
As an unthinking hodgepodge, The Artist at least has a distinct advantage over the Weinsteins’ other nostalgia tchotchke of 2011, My Week with Marilyn, and that’s Hazanavicius’s competence as a shooter. Whereas Simon Curtis’s disaster makes the wrong impression almost immediately, with an opening “film within a film” that’s supposed to be a 1950s movie musical but looks more like a music video that Madonna would have rejected in the 1980s, Hazanavicius at least has sense enough to craft his “old movie” scenes to look like old movies. Scarcely a patch on what Guy Maddin can do on a bad day, but let’s say USA’s Psych decides to do a silent cinema-themed episode to complement their Hitchcock episode or their Telemundo episode. They would do well to call Hazanavicius first.