Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller
Nominations: Picture, Director – Michel Hazanavicius, Actor – Jean Dujardin, Supporting Actress – Berenice Bejo, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score
Wins: Picture, Director – Michel Hazanavicius, Actor – Jean Dujardin, Costume Design, Score
Excluding the few rare organisms, death is inevitable for all living things. Unfortunately for humans, we are fully aware of our mortality, which can lead to a variety of existential crises: we know the end is coming, so we do what we can to prevent that end from arriving for as long as we can. A sense of mortality also manifests in other areas of life: careers, relationships, wealth, entertainment, etc. In The Artist, we see all four of those live and die. And then live again. Yes, death is inevitable, but perhaps not all deaths are permanent.
In 1927, George Valentin is rich, famous, married, and having the time of his life. The numerous successes he experiences help him ignore—or maybe just outright forget—that eventually he’ll not be rich, famous, married, or having the time of his life. Being on top of the world, it can be difficult to see the bottom below. As it happens, though, when it rains it pours, and just as George’s career collapses, so do his finances, marriage, and carefree joy of life. The spiral that follows challenges all his expectations in life, from the pieces he can control—his marriage and career—to those he can’t—the stock market crash and sound technology in film. While there was probably little that he could’ve done to avoid losing his money and his wife, he did have the opportunity early on to maintain the life of his career. Even as the death of the Silent Era of films fell upon the film industry, the addition of synchronized sound and dialogue created a new frontier for motion pictures to explore. From one death comes another life.
In fact, rebirth is a strong theme throughout the film, and of the film itself in a meta, postmodern way: it was the first silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar since Wings (William Wellman, 1927) at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony and the first mostly silent major film released since the mid-1970s. Granted, The Artist didn’t usher in a trend of new silent films, but its critical acclaim, awards tally, and box office returns gave some evidence that silent films aren’t entire extinct. (A Quiet Place [John Krasinski, 2018] later showed that silent films can be success even if they aren’t more of an homage to the Silent Era.)
Within the film, we can take the fire in George’s apartment as the catalyst for his eventual rebirth. He goes through a baptism by fire as the flames destroy his film reels—his past—and he moves toward a clean slate.
But the fire turns out to be far from George’s lowest point; it was only the beginning of the bottom dropping out from his already soul-crushing descent. As he convalesces at Peppy’s mansion, he discovers she was responsible for purchasing his auctioned possessions. The scene plays out similar to a horror movie, when the thought-to-be-dead monster returns for a final scare. George is unable to fully escape his past, which is bound to haunt him for his remaining days.
George returns to his fire-damaged apartment, intent on ending his misery. Fortunately, he’s saved (again) by Peppy. She proposes that they work together in a new film to help mount George’s comeback. The symbolism of this proposition occurring in the apartment is hopeful that George will be able to find success in this second half of his career: he rises from the ashes of his past, a phoenix ready to take on new challenges and all the stronger for everything he’s gone through before. Part of him has died, to be sure, but he has a new chance at life: death is inevitable, but not always permanent.