The Artist is a silent film which occasionally flashes the modernity of its production to have some fun. It works. Hazanavicius is careful never to undermine his story with too many postmodern asides.
However, both the content of the film (a self-reflexive film about filmmaking) and its style, in which Hazanavicius does make use of the postmodern overview a modern audience has of an earlier film, give The Artist a certain sense of meta-narrative intent. It's these moments of equivocation which lead to a most perplexing and potentially irritating issue.
There may be spoilers ahead.
In a climatic sequence of high romance the girl rescues the boy from himself; death stymied by love. The sequence is underscored with an extract from Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo. This is the scene from that film:
Now, for many - including my companion at the screening who did not know Herrmann's music - there is no issue. Herrmann's music is not too great a lurch from what has come before (the music of Hazanavicius' composer Ludovic Bource) and is consonant with what we see on screen. It fits, it works.
However, for some, such as myself, Herrmann's score, one of the greatest ever produced for a movie, is not only utterly distinct, pungent, and possibly sui generis, but is also inextricable from Hitchcock's 1958 masterwork. The music does not merely support the film but has a content all of its own. It's use in another film comes across as at best distracting. Yesterday Kim Novak, who played Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo was moved to use extremely emotive words to show her disappointment.
Assuming that Hazanavicius's film by both its content and technique holds a meta-narrative in relief, then this disappointment does have some traction. Either the film is saying something about Vertigo, or something about the common themes of Vertigo and The Artist.
I do not believe that Hazanavicius is trying to say anything about how Hitchcock's 1958 film (as an entity) has any relevance to a film made in 2010 about films made around 1930. The common theme explanation might be easier to maintain.
Yet Scene d'Amour is more than this. The unresolving, tidal music represents something sinister and painful. Vertigo goes on to reveal itself as both a straightforward criminal conspiracy and as carrying deeper, metaphysical questions about the nature of (obsessive) love. The Artist is a breezier confection. Peppy is not part of an industry conspiracy to unseat Valentin. Neither does his fragile masculinity come under scrutiny in this sequence.
However, there are two incidents earlier in the film which might correspond to the sort of film that Hitchcock made. The first is a sequence in which accusing mouths are superimposed onto the frame around Valentin before he finally has a magic-realist argument with his own shadow. This loosely corresponds to the composite dream sequences that Scotty has in Vertigo (Valentin also has a dream in The Artist).
The second is a classically expressionist Hitchcockian scene in which Valentin discovers his former possessions purchased and stored in Peppy's house. The culmination of this is in the discovery of a full-sized portrait of him as he was before his fall from favour. Stylistic parallels aside, the preservation and re-discovery of a former identity (along with the Carlotta Valdes-symbolism of the portrait) is precisely the sort of thematic content that might justify the use of this music.
It's possible. It's also possible to get too entrenched in this sort of speculative thematic mapping. As Hazanavicius has said in response to Novak's alarm, The Artist had been 'inspired by the work of Hitchcock'. I suspect that this is the extent of its material overlap - and that the use of the music may be written off to those who are over-familiar with it as a folie d'amour.