It has been months since I last contributed to Omega Level with my analysis of the Transformers mythology and its representation of the American hero in the form of Sam Witwicky. In the interim, I haven’t felt the urge because the other OL contributors have been doing such a great job without me. But, man, do I have the urge to write now.
Though the movie industry’s year-end tradition–pummeling moviegoers every winter with “Oscar-worthy” products like some cinematic blizzard of unbearable mawkishness and half-baked messages about human nature–has thankfully come to an end, we’ve reached that unfortunate stretch when the industry congratulates itself by doling out unwarranted accolades. And the film that is getting most of the love (winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture last night) is the one that is the least understood: Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. Widely hailed as a feel-good comedy about a silent-movie star’s transition with the help of a good and loving lady into talking pictures, The Artist is actually a far more tragic tale about a once burly, proud, and charismatic man of few–or, rather, no–words who is methodically broken down by the women in his life, mostly by his supposed love interest who wants him to open up and talk. And by the time he finally does express himself, articulating his feelings, he has become a shell of his former (and better) self. In turn, if the film indeed warrants any accolade, it should be for the Most Emasculating Movie of the Year.
When we are first introduced to the protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), he is the center of attention, the main man, a huge star of adventure films (think Douglas Fairbanks). The Artist opens at the premiere of his new film, in which he is being tortured so that he will “talk” and divulge important information. But, like the heroic character that he is, he resists the temptation to externalize. Moreover, as The Artist’s striking symbol for all men, he remains mum about what he’s all about, because by opening up and sharing this guarded information, thus revealing what lies within, it also opens up the possibility of losing himself entirely.
In this film-within-a-film, the actor does not give up the information. Instead, with the assistance of his trusted canine companion, in and out of the movies (a constant reminder of the battle between cats and dogs), George saves his co-star played by Constance (Missi Pyle), outwits and outworks his enemies, and finally soars to freedom on the plane he pilots. The character, like the actor, wins on his own terms, and quite handily at that. He makes it look easy, and the audience at the premiere loves him (and the film) for it. They give him a long standing ovation for his performance, which he duly relishes by himself until he begrudgingly allows his co-star to bask in the overwhelming response. But make no mistake: The audience cheers for him, and him alone.
Outside the theater, however, George faces adversity, dealing with slings and arrows that are directed at his manly silent demeanor. While entertaining the fans on the red carpet, impressing all by flexing like a champion and being all-around dashing, one obsessive fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), manages to get by the security and bumps into the compelling star. Momentarily put off by the intrusion, George makes light of the situation, joking about what has happened, and everyone eats it up. This is an unfortunate decision on George’s part because Peppy then takes center stage, and as the center of attraction, it gives way to her rise and George’s eventual fall. The flashing cameras lead to Peppy’s becoming a front-page sensation, an “it girl” on the minds of everyone, even George.
The next day, Peppy tries to parlay this exposure into not only an extended relationship with George, but a movie career. The logical step to solving both is, of course, to go to the open audition for George’s new movie. And after getting a part as an extra, she manages to get (i.e. steal) a scene with the star, a scene that essentially encapsulates their entire relationship (and the whole movie, for that matter). In it, George, once again playing a focused and suave action hero, makes his way through a crowd of dancing people at a restaurant, towards a suspicious-looking man who is seated at the other side of dance floor. In order to blend in, on his way there, George dances with a passing woman, played by Peppy. What is meant to be a simple tracking shot, moving across the dance floor to the seated man, becomes difficult because George is unable to concentrate. He is taken in by her charm, breaks character repeatedly, thus losing sense of the scene as he fools around with Peppy. And over the course of multiple takes, George becomes less of an action hero–less himself–until the scene ends without a successful take. George’s action career as an auspicious silent-film actor and his entire existence as a silent man effectively end at this moment.
But Peppy isn’t the only woman who has made her way into George’s man-sphere. Later, George is shown test footage of the future of cinema–the talkie. The actress in the test screening is none other than his former co-star Constance. No longer overshadowed by George’s dominant personality, she is free to express herself, singing and speaking into a microphone to her heart’s content. It offers the perfect medium for the woman. Conversely, it is everything that George is against. It is far too expressive. And, again, instead of actively protesting an intrusion, he laughs it off, downplaying its significance. He does not wish to give utterance to his true feelings about the feminization of film because he is not one for expression.
But regardless of how George acts on the outside, the new era of film looms over him. Soon after the test screening, George has a nightmare in sound. Each and every sound in the dream–the clanking cup, the pounding footsteps, his barking dog–cracks with frightening clarity. But the most frightening, the most fiendish, sounds in the dream come from the laughter of a trio of beautiful women–creating a collective cackle that’s aimed at breaking the sound barrier into George’s man-sphere. Faced with such chatter and feminine expressiveness, George is distressed by the resounding attack on his manhood. But even in his nightmare, even when he is overwhelmed by the barrage, George intrinsically knows that, by giving into sound (and talking pictures), he would lose what makes him himself, what makes him the man that he is. And he, and he alone, is the only person who does not speak in the nightmare; he holds out hope, even in his sleep, that his silence will be enough to combat the deafening sound.
In actuality, the dream is the manifestation of his every-day living near women who love sounding off (and hate his stance against it), though the looming era of sound accentuates the battle greatly. George is married to the nagging Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) who seems to have two modes of expression to combat George’s non-expression: scowling at him when he’s not speaking about his feelings and defacing his portraits (adding hyper-masculinized doodles, like bushy moustaches and thick glasses, to his magazine covers and newspaper snapshots) when he’s not looking. It’s no wonder why he doesn’t go anywhere with her out of the house. And when she does finally leave the house, she does so alone; she leaves him. But, like the cackling women in his nightmare, Doris makes sure she gets the last laugh: In an attempt to take him down a peg, she leaves behind a hurtful note about a recent flop that he had written, starred in, produced, and directed. She attacks him, implying that the man and his movie are inadequate, especially when compared to the incredibly successful talking picture, Beauty Spot, starring Peppy Miller.
George’s flop, compounded by the Market Crash of 1929, leaves the man in financial ruin. He is forced to sell his mansion, his cars, his monkey statues–all the objects that help to define him as a man. The removal of his belongings is a most emasculating process which is highlighted during the firing of his extremely loyal driver Clifton (James Cromwell), who is, appropriately enough, chopping up sausages at the time. Piece by piece, the George of old is broken down. Finally, after turning to alcohol to help with his turbulent feelings, he acts out against his old films, burning all of them except the outtakes of the dancing scene with Peppy. Fueled by the film stock, the fire becomes uncontrollable and overtakes George. Luckily, his trusty dog is able to warn a police officer, who swoops in to save him, now left with nothing.
Meanwhile, as George is losing himself, Peppy is gaining. She has quickly become the biggest star in the talking-movie business. She has also indulged in the company of other men or, as she calls them, her “toys.” They are mere objects to her, to be played with and dismantled as she sees fit. However, the true object of her obsession is George, in whom she has always taken special interest, for she is always there to chronicle his downfall: She is one of handful of moviegoers at George’s flop, with George in attendance; she gives a radio interview about the obsoleteness of silent film in George’s presence; she goes to visit him in the hospital after the fire, to claim the final piece to the puzzle that is George, to have him as her own. Thus, as George loses everything, Peppy gains everything that he has (or has been). She takes on Clifton as her own driver; she buys all of George’s possessions at an auction; she takes the unconscious George home from the hospital to her mansion.
There, the two seem to be momentarily happy together; that is, until Peppy must report to her movie set, leaving George to stew about the life that he has lost. It is here when he realizes that his loss has been Peppy’s gain. Wandering into a room full of draperied objects, George uncovers that the entire room consists of his old belongings. In this scene, aptly shot like something from a horror movie, George realizes that Peppy has taken everything that he has, ripped away everything that he once was. His cool, silent demeanor is no more; what are left are the contortions of a frightened and scared man, faced with the monkeys of his past and the she-devil of his present.
So, leaving Peppy’s mansion, George goes to his charred apartment. There, he can do one of two things: Either he can accept a future of sound and open up to Peppy, the woman who now owns him, or he can take his own life with a cracking bullet, blowing the cackling women out of his head. But just when he has made his decision, choosing to go out like a man as he puts the gun to his head, Peppy arrives with a preemptive crash, keeping alive what she has worked so hard to destroy. Having convinced the movie studio (i.e. blackmail) to finance a talking picture that they can star in together, Peppy has finalized the annihilation of George’s manliness, taking him into the sound era–what he once so loathed. As a result, Peppy is the film’s true artist, one who has systematically broken down George until he becomes an actor in the talkies, a person who has to express himself to everyone in the world.
And in The Artist’s final scene, at the conclusion of the duo’s dance routine in front of the production crew, we no longer have that proud and silent man, the man who once made all action look easy, the man who was perfectly in control, the man who never had to answer to anyone. What we are left with is the ceaseless panting of an emasculated man who answers to everyone and does so with a French accent.