At the Movies

Michael Wood

The plot line is a bit schematic, resolute in its avoidance of swerves and complications. A new movie star is born, an old star fades. Time passes, technology rules, the talkies are here. Still, there are plenty of twists and nuances in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, and the plot feels really dogged only when it takes its pathos too seriously, inviting us to invest all our sympathy in the silent star stranded by the new system. This man is too diligently sorry for himself to leave much room for our participation. His success has died on him; he doesn’t know who he is without it. This is certainly a sad situation, but perhaps not quite so uniquely awful as the film suggests, and we may be tempted to cook up our own version of a brutal remark the star himself makes to his estranged wife. ‘I’m unhappy,’ she says. ‘So are millions of other people,’ he glumly responds. But then neither he nor we are those millions, our unhappiness is our own, and anyone can identify with loss. This is the larger nostalgia the film seems to appeal to. Change itself is the enemy, because it will always cause casualties. Silent film is a figure for the past itself, the old days, whatever it is that was present and is now gone.

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