The Artist: A Film Review and Reflection
Self-reflective storytelling can be clever and effective, or it can become self-conscious and overly serious. The Artist (2012), a silent film set in 1927 and focusing on the career of a silent-film star confronted with the new wave of ‘talkies’, is a marvelous example of self-reflection done right. As I write this, it’s an Academy Award contender for Best Film, and deservedly so (Michel Hazanavicius has also been nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay).
The ‘silent film’ choice is more than a conceit; The Artist does some very clever and interesting things with the form. For one thing, the absence of spoken dialogue brings the role of the musical score to the forefront: one of the things that struck me about the film was that, although the score served in the place of dialogue much of the time, it felt much less manipulative than many of the musical scores for films with spoken dialogue.
The need to use title cards for key lines of dialogue heightens the impact of those chosen words and draws the audience’s attention to the acting, movement, and visuals as consciously chosen elements of the story. Thematically, there’s also an interesting use of silence within the story: the characters too often find themselves unable to find the right words to say what needs to be said. And throughout the film, there are some surprising tweaks with the use of sound and the conventions of the genre… I won’t spoil any of them, but suffice it to say that The Artist is self-aware enough to be funny and clever at times, without over-doing it.
What I want to talk about now, though, is how The Artist has another layer to it. Over and above being a well done film, it shows forth the truth about God’s grace in a powerful way.
I don’t know if the filmmakers are Christian or not, but that doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is that, without showing a single explicitly religious image, and without making any reference to faith whatsoever, The Artist gives a clear and compelling vision of sin and grace.
In fact, I would argue that the very absence of conventionally Christian imagery is precisely what allows the film to speak so powerfully. (“Speak” being even more of a metaphor than usual here!)
The Artist traces the career of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent-film star who is on top of the world for a while, only to find that with the rise of ‘talkies,’ his style of film is no longer in demand. As a new starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), rises to fame, Valentin sinks into obscurity, all the while clinging to his own vision of what a film should be. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that he gets all the way to the bottom, losing his marriage and his home… and is confronted with the choice of how to respond to the generosity of Miller, who is determined to do her best to help him.
One of the things that makes The Artist notable is that it shows Valentin’s failings at a deeper level than we might expect. Valentin may be tempted to have an affair with Miller at the very beginning, and certainly there is a tension between them born out of attraction, but — this is important — he never acts on it, nor even allows himself to be put more in the way of temptation by seeking her out or calling her. Valentin ends up powerfully in the grip of sin, but not the sin we are conditioned to expect from Hollywood celebrities.
Indeed his marriage ends, but it is worth noting that he and his wife are both responsible for its decay. She is jealous, resentful, and cold; as things get worse, he is depressed, withdrawn, and bitter. He broods over his fall from fame, and she tells him “I am unhappy.” What we see is a depiction of two selfish people unable and unwilling to reach out: neither of them can see a ‘we’ past their individual, miserable ‘I.’ That’s not the sensational breakup that we might expect in a film about Hollywood – but it’s far more likely to strike home for viewers. Certainly it did for me.
We might reasonably ask whether we should care whether Valentin succeeds or not. Isn’t he just chasing the fleeting favor of the crowd? Certainly his acting might not have the same merit as finding a cure for cancer, but it has its place: after all, even cancer researchers need relaxation and stress relief, and a film might be just the thing after a long day in the lab. George Valentin’s problem is not in the value of his work, but in his attitude: his fall begins when he starts thinking it’s all about him.
Rather than thinking how he can best serve his audience as an entertainer, Valentin demands that the audience adore him on his own terms. It’s pride, not artistic integrity, that drives him to keep making silent films — but he dresses it up as integrity, and so hides his own sin from himself.
So Valentin continues to decline. He is, at a certain point in the film, a pathetic figure. He’s not particularly likable. He has blown his chances, failed repeatedly by his own fault.
And yet the film has a happy ending.
It’s possible to see this ending as undeserved; to say that Valentin did not merit the persistent efforts of Peppy Miller to save him, that by rights he should have died miserable and alone, since after all it was his own fault that he ended up where he was, and even after his rescue he’s never going to do anything particularly worthwhile in absolute terms.
That’s the point.
Is there any better illustration of God’s grace?
Valentin could be me. He could be any one of us – all the more so because he doesn’t do anything wrong by the standards of the world. He doesn’t have an affair, or steal from the company, or kill anyone. He just clings to his miserable pride and tries to save himself by his own efforts – in this case, by financing his own silent film. At a certain point, he even sees quite clearly that pride is destroying him – and he still cannot let it go.
That’s a clear picture of trying to live without grace. It’s a picture of our need for salvation, shown in a way that hits home and gets past the mental filters that mark certain concepts as ‘religious’ and thus separate in some way from actually living one’s life.
George Valentin is not quite Everyman, but he’s close. And Peppy Miller is not quite Grace, but she’s close. Close enough for me to think that The Artist might be the best Christian film I’ve seen in a long time.
Even if it’s not trying to be Christian.