George Valentin starts off The Artist as the cat's pajamas. He's the bee's knees. The tomatoes all think he's hotsy-totsy—after all, he's an Oliver Twist.
What's that? You don't speak 1920s slang? Don't worry; everything's Jake—er, that's okay. We'll translate.
When we first meet George, he's the best. The hottest. The ladeez all think he's super-hot—after all, he's an awesome dancer.
But that's not all he is.
George's a silent film star with the world at his feet and a smile for miles. He lives in a big mansion with his beautiful wife and his canine sidekick, Jack. The press loves him. The camera loves him. The ladies love him. His dog loves him. There's lots of love all around for our boy George (not to be confused with Boy George).
The only person who doesn't totally love George all the time might be his director, Al Zimmer…probably because George clowns around a lot. For example, the movie's opening scene shows George hamming it up on stage for the audience (who, again, loves him), but totally ignoring his female co-star and director, both of whom wait in the wings.
Is it fair to say George might be a little full of himself? Maybe, but who wouldn't be, with his million-watt grin and his stunning career…a career that he is, by the way, terrified of losing.
In fact, we first see this fear when George meets Peppy Miller (she bumps into him and is thrown in front of the cameras—what a meet cute). And he seems a bit miffed that she's stolen his spotlight.
This first interaction sets up a sort of competition between the pair and demonstrates the line George is always walking, between a pompous awareness of his own celebrity and a kind-hearted, child-like generosity.
Everything might seem peachy keen for George Valentin on set, but for George at home it's a different story. His wife, Doris, is tired of being ignored by him…but George doesn't want to talk about their problems:
DORIS: I'm unhappy, George.
GEORGE: So are millions of us.
George tries to evade Doris' annoyance by joking around and staging plays with his dog at the breakfast table. But we get the impression that, while that was cute for a while, it's gotten a little stale. His marriage is failing.
He may like confronting the portrait of himself hanging in his foyer (okay, maybe he's more than a little self involved), but it seems there are other things George has a hard time confronting. Like feelings.
On set, though, George delivers time and again—his charm is inexhaustible. But while George's allure might be reliable, the movie business sure ain't.
The early years of film saw the art form's rapid transformation from black-and-white silent shorts to longer, narrative color films with sound. George's star rose in the period of silent film, and as his world begins to shift and change around him, it becomes clear that he's not ready to change with it.
When Zimmer shows him a preview of a talkie, George just chuckles:
ZIMMER: Don't laugh George! That's the future.
GEORGE: If that's the future, you can have it!
Oh, George. Bad move.
Because while he may be super-talented, he's not flexible enough to reshape himself to fit the trends of cinema. You know the old adage about genius being one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration? Well, we'd alter that to say that fame is one percent talent, ninety-nine percent knowing your audience. (Yeah. It's not as pithy.)
And while George has talent galore, he's too self-centered and stubborn to realize that the audience won't stay loyal to him forever.
For all you old movie buffs out there, George's difficulty keeping up with the times may call to mind Douglas Fairbanks, who also had difficulty adapting to talkies. But the similarities don't stop there—Fairbanks also played Zorro, was married to America's sweetheart (Mary Pickford), and found the new sound films restrictive and retired in 1934.
George's competition (or is it sexual tension) with Peppy is another important aspect of his trajectory in the film. In many ways, Peppy acts as a foil to George, and he seems attracted to her despite—or is it because of—their differences. Although the film leaves the question of George and Peppy's romance unresolved (they don't even smooch), the chemistry between them is explosive enough to satisfy even Walter White.
But even though it features two attractive people who are drawn to each other and look even more attractive side by side, The Artist isn't really a love story.
First and foremost, it's a story about a man coming to terms with change. George goes through a major transformation in the film—he gets thrown from his pedestal at the top of his game, and never quite recovers from the feeling that he's been discarded by the movie biz.
Part of the trouble is his feeling that he's being used—by his producer and by the media:
NEWSPAPER HEADLINE: "I'm not a puppet, I'm an artist!" – George Valentin
Things get pretty dark for George for a while, as the empty booze bottles pile up and depression claws down his door. Eventually, he hits rock bottom—nearly perishing in a fire of his own making and finding himself face to face with the barrel of his own gun—and it's only when he is truly confronted with himself that George can let down his guard and accept the help of others.
And it just so happens that that "other" is the lovely Peppy.
When George finally lets Peppy pull some strings for him and get him back on set where he belongs, we all breathe a sigh of relief. It's a relief to see that sparkling smile again.
How fitting then, that George's last (and only spoken) words of the film are:
The sound of his (heavily accented) voice both explains his resistance to speaking (Hollywood in the 20s was even more problematic than it is now, even in the era of #oscarssowhite) and also breaks the literal silence of the film. As the sounds of the modern era envelop them, George embraces that era, a humbler and more open man than he was at the start of the film.
It doesn't hurt that we also get to see him tap dance up a clickety-clackety storm.
You can't give the screenwriter credit for subtlety when it comes to Peppy's name—she's, well, peppy. (Other acceptable names would have been "Sassy" and "Chipper." Her smile might not have the initial wattage that George's has…but she makes up for it by bounding across the silent screen and shaking her curls.
But she's also so much more than just a peppy face.
If George represents the world of silent film, Peppy is symbolic of the new, "talkie" era. She's the "fresh meat" that Zimmer speaks of—sure, she's the dancing legs behind the screen when George first meets her on set, but she's not just a body to be objectified.
Peppy's spirited, ambitious, resourceful and confident. She knows she has to get noticed to make it as an actress, so she takes advantage of getting thrown into the spotlight at George's premiere and plays glam for the cameras. Not only does she make the headlines the next day, but also the papers have everyone wondering "Who's that girl?"
It's basically an aspiring actress's dream.
Bérénice Bejo, who plays Peppy in the film, has said that director Hazanavicius (who's also her husband) created Peppy based on "the fantasy of me that he has in his head." Bejo admits that she's not as "perfect" as Peppy, who possesses an almost atomic vibrancy that threatens the stability of George's success. (Source)
Oh—about George. Peppy's enamored of George's celebrity and even wraps herself in his suit jacket while fantasizing about being embraced by him. It's hard to tell, at least initially, if she's more drawn to his dashing good looks or his insane fame.
And in some ways she owes her big break to him—he does invent her famous beauty spot, for example—but her rapid rise to fame is also her own making.
Peppy seems like the kind of woman who always knew she wanted to be an actress. She knows exactly how to pose for the camera, dances a killer Charleston, and always throws a wink or blows a kiss at the right moment.
And the public loves her. In fact, the newspapers cant stop yelling about how great she is. Check out these headlines:
Peppy Miller Shines in Beauty Spot
Peppy Miller: The Girl You'll Love to Love
Young, Pretty and Talking!
Peppy Miller, The Sound of Love
These are some glowing reviews…especially compared to today's tabloid headlines, where the most flattering thing that is usually said is "Stars—They're Just Like Us!"
In fact, Peppy's a product of her time in many ways. She's a great example of what the 1920s called the "New Woman," a flapper-esque gal who wears short skirts and is a bit more sexually free than the women of the past generation.
Early Hollywood was a pretty important time for feminism, because young, unmarried girls flocked there in droves to find jobs as screenwriters and actors. In her book Go West, Young Women! Hilary Hallett points out that "by 1920, Los Angeles had become the only western city where women outnumbered men." (Source)
Peppy Miller's character is one of these women, and her competition with George (who represents older patriarchal values) is more complex because of it.
Although Peppy relishes her rise to the top, she is also wracked with guilt about George's decline. She goes to see his movie and ends up crying, not because it's "so bad," but because he's fallen so far from where he once was—something Peppy feels partially responsible for.
It's as if her success can only exist in relation to his failure. She shows up in the rain to apologize to him, but George also has a chip on his shoulder and is too stubborn to forgive her:
PEPPY: Hello, I wanted to talk to you…I just saw Tears of Love.
GEORGE: And you want a refund?
GEORGE: Not too much mugging?
PEPPY: No. I…I'm sorry about last night. I didn't mean what I said...
GEORGE: But you were right. Make way for the young...
We have to cut her a break—it's hard to apologize to someone who doesn't want to accept your apology. George is a little sensitive, but then again, Peppy can be tactless. When George ends up in the hospital after nearly dying in the fire, however, Peppy realizes how much she cares for him. She is touched by the fact that he rescued the reel of the film they acted in together and takes it as a gesture of forgiveness.
For all her good intentions and nurturing gestures, Peppy's actions are sometimes misinterpreted—like when she says that "people are tired of the old actors" in a radio interview, or when she buys all of George's stuff at the auction, both of which make him feel small and defeated.
Ultimately, though, she acts like a kind of guardian angel for George, arriving just in time to stop him from shooting himself and pushing him to overcome his fears and get back on set.
In the film's closing scene, Peppy and George take the stage together, bringing the worlds of old and new together and fulfilling both of their dreams. We're not surprised by this in the slightest—with energy like Peppy's, it's hard to imagine that she wouldn't manage to concoct a happy ending of her own design.
Al Zimmer is one of those cigar-chomping execs with perpetual dollar signs in his eyes. He's the big boss man for Hollywood's Kinograph Studios in The Artist, and his loves are movies, babes, stogies, and money. Not in that order.
When he's not wheeling and dealing while sitting around in his own cigar smoke, Zimmer's dating George's demanding co-star, Constance (who's definitely with him for the connections).
Initially, Zimmer and George are often at odds—George tends to waste Zimmer's time with his goofy antics and Zimmer puts up with it begrudgingly because he knows the public will pay to see George do anything.
Zimmer's easily persuaded and charmed by the beautiful celebrities that surround him. When George makes a scene at his premiere, hogging the stage and neglecting Constance in the wings, Zimmer lets it slide. When Peppy attempts to convince Zimmer to produce a film starring her and George—"Hey, I'm blackmailing you here!" she explains—Zimmer eventually agrees.
Hey: anything for his biggest star, right?
But that's the thing: Zimmer only really cares about George when George can rake in the moolah. He is, first and foremost, a businessman. He tries to stay on top of the trends of the movie biz—and if that means making talkies and losing his best silent film star, so be it:
ZIMMER: I wish it wasn't like this, but the public wants fresh meat, and the public is never wrong.
GEORGE: I'm the one people come to see. They never needed to hear me!
When Peppy wants to get George back on set, she's canny enough to know that to keep Zimmer happy she'll have to pitch something different from all the other movies out there. We think that's why she chooses the dance number at the end of the film—it, like the silent films of the past, requires its actors to be athletic rather than talkative, and showcases both Peppy and Valentin wonderfully.
And Zimmer eats it up with a spoon:
ZIMMER: Perfect. Beautiful.
It's like he can already see the bags of money rolling in.
In some ways, Jack is the true heart and soul (and tongue and paw) of The Artist. He's clever, he's cute, and he's there when you need him.
He's also an extension of George himself—many of George's tricks and jokes, such as his charade at the breakfast table or his extended standing ovation at his film premiere, don't work without Jack's participation (and mad skills for playing dead!).
Always at George's heels (he even accompanies his owner to watch a movie), Jack's adoring devotion mimics the way George's fans feel about him…and even the way George wants to feel about himself.
In fact, sometimes it even seems like George can't tell the difference between Jack and himself:
WOMAN AT MOVIE THEATRE: He's so cute.
GEORGE: If only he could talk.
Paging Dr. Freud—we have a serious case of sublimation going on here. Of course, what George means is that he wishes he (meaning George) could talk—and star in talkies—but hey: if you can blame missing homework on your dog, you can definitely blame your professional failings.
Perfect for a silent film, Jack doesn't need to speak because he's just a cute lil' pooch. But he does need to make noise—Jack's bark alerts us to important events and dangers, like when George nearly dies in the house fire.
But don't mistake Jack for an all-noble dog like Lassie. His comedic timing relieves the film from heaviness, like when George's gun goes off and Jack plays dead, causing both George and Peppy to laugh off what could otherwise be a deeply sad situation.
Like the actors that surround him, Jack is well-trained in performance and lives not for doggy treats, but for the audience. He lacks the ego of the characters around him, however, and his canine innocence makes him an excellent lens for the audience, shedding new light on the events of the film.
RIP Uggie, the dog who played Jack in the film and died in August 2015 at the tender age of thirteen. Uggie also starred in Water for Elephants with Reese Witherspoon, and won a Palm Dog Award (yes, that's a thing) at Cannes for his role in The Artist.
Clifton's the strong, silent type…and not just because he's acting in a (mostly) silent film. Clifton would probably be insulted if we compared him to a dog, but, like Jack, he's extremely loyal (and we think that's a compliment).
He does more than just drive George around. He keeps him out of the doghouse again and again:
GEORGE: Clifton, go to the jewelry store. Get something nice for my wife. To make it up to her.
And George's wish is Clifton's command.
Clifton sticks with George even when he hasn't been paid in over a year. (Whoa. Aren't there chauffeur unions?) And when George does finally let him go, he waits outside by his car all night to see if he'll change his mind.
Like a guardian angel—or a stalker?—Clifton's always just five steps behind George, and he's there when George is in trouble: he shows up at the bar when George passes out drunk and carries his employer home to bed.
Peppy knows how important Clifton is to George, and when George can no longer afford to employ him, she hires him to drive for her. This is one of those gestures that, though well-meaning, George interprets as invasive and overbearing.
But Clifton is aware of how stubborn George can be. He knows it better than anyone. He's the true voice of reason when George refuses the script Peppy proposes for him:
CLIFTON: Beware of your pride, if I may say so sir. Miss Miller is a good person, Believe me.
Well put, Clifton. You don't talk much, but when you do, you say the right things.
The film isn't exactly fair to George's wife, Doris Valentin, who comes off as chilly and sour as a tall glass of unsweetened lemonade.
But you'd probably be just as bitter as Doris if you had to live with at-the-height-of-his-fame George Valentin. After all, she spends day after day with a self-obsessed man who has a better relationship with his dog than his wife and who refuses to talk about his problems. Ick.
In fact, Doris is actually the first person in the film to ask George the question we all want to ask:
DORIS: We have to talk, George. Why do you refuse to talk?
She channels her frustration with his lack of communication into her mustache-drawing skills—perhaps she feels that by defacing his promo photos, she's taking his vanity down a notch.
At first Doris, who's cold and un-smiling, seems like the opposite of positive, warm Peppy. But it's hard not to imagine that Doris was once in Peppy's position—a young starlet and the apple of George's eye—and that the harsh realities of marrying a egotistic celeb like George have taken a toll on her good humor.
Doris represents the less attractive side of George. She's the first clue that he's not the perfect man he appears to be and, in fact, has trouble seeing beyond himself.
Constance is George's obnoxious co-star and Al Zimmer's main squeeze. She's not exactly a good actor, but she gets parts because, ahem, nepotism. She can't stand George's self-important antics and is un-swayed by his charm.
The feelings are mutual—part of the reason George laughs so hard when Zimmer shows him the sound film footage is because it's Constance on screen and she's clearly butchering the role with her awkward and overzealous arm movements.
Constance is also a good case study for the fickle movie biz and the unpredictable rat race of fame. Sure, she's getting work as an actress, but she just doesn't have that "it" girl, star-quality factor that Peppy has in spades.