The Artist (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Artist (2011)

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My fiancee laughed at me as we left the theater for The Artist. I had carefully and succinctly explained my points against the film, and she just burst out laughing.

"Let me get this straight. Your issue with this film is that it feels like it was made sixty years ago instead of eighty?"

"Look,it just doesn't look like a film made in the late 20's."

"... Do you just wish it was more grainy?"

It's hard to explain what I mean here, but I'll try. The Artist is an homage to the idea of silent movies, and Hollywood's painful transition to the coming of sound. This is represented by following the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he falls from the public favor because he refuses to turn to talkies.

"I want to be, where the speakers are. I want to see, want to see them dancing!"

This fall is happening in parallel to Peppy Miller's (Bérénice Bejo) rise to stardom. She's become America's talking sweetheart, he's become a forgotten has-been; the connecting tissue is that he was the one who pulled her out of the crowd and made her a star, and they've developed a mad infatuation with each other that he rejects out of a sense of professional pride.

It's an old story that at least frames it in a nostalgic light, even though that only emphasizes the squeaky creakiness that the film embodies. The entire conflict in the picture comes down to pride, and it's a rather tepid conflict, all told. While Dujardin is excellent at conveying the vast power that Valentin embodies, the film keeps his motivations in the dark throughout the film; the last line of the movie is the big reveal, and it only serves to point out what a needless buildup it warranted.

Where The Artist falters is the way it's ethos adhere closer to the films of the 1950's and their satires of the Silent Era, most noticeably Singin' in the Rain, than any piece of entertainment turned out in the late-20's. The achingly black and white plot construction and glitzy glamor are painted in moral boundaries that silent Hollywood films simply didn't explore in such blatant terms. Essentially you're not getting a modern day take on a silent movie, but a modern day take on the parody of the silent movie. It's a letdown.

Man, but that dog is cute.

This is hard to encapsulate in a written review, but easy to see when you put the films side by side. The Artist even goes out of its way to do so when a dejected Valentin is caught enthralled in one of his own pictures, and director Michel Hazanavicius uses this scene to fluctuate between close-ups of Dujardin dressed as Zorro and Douglas Fairbanks' work in the original Mark of Zorro. I'd almost be tempted to argue that this is a slight against Fairbanks, who was a much more interesting character than Valentin or even Valentino, who had a world that felt lived in and raw for The Sheik.

And, right about now, you're shaking your head at me, just like my fiancee did. Do these complaints really matter?

On one level, I suppose they don't; Hazanavicius has crafted a cute and somewhat lovable film that's gotten a wider audience to talk about silent films than have in ages. But, then again, they're talking about a cracked mirror portrayal of silent films, akin to Moulin Rouge's take on musicals minus the energetic and emotional gusto.

You see the same sort of issues with Hazanavicius's and Dujardin's previous team-up, the unremittingly awful O.S.S.: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was an unfunny James Bond parody that functioned by having our hero nod while everyone points out how politically incorrect he is; dull, surface level satire to a 'T'. Thankfully The Artist eschews this most of the time, but some ugly similarities do arise from time to time.

I'm still talking abstractions. The Artist has a cute dog, and some fantastic scenes. One, where Valentin slowly loses his mind as he realizes he's still silent is potent. Another, involving him impotently shaking his fists as even his shadow gives up on him, is excellently done.

Bad touch!

But, outside these moments, there's a great deal of self aggravation that make the middle of the film drag on; we wallow in Valentin's unhappiness, and its kind of a rather sadistic choice on the part of the director, since this sadness will obviously not last.

As a crowd pleaser, The Artist is kind of soggy. I do think that some of the film is fantastic, and, I don't admit this very often, a rewatch without expectations of seeing something consistently charming or enjoyable may leave me in a more favorable mood. But from where I sat today, The Artist is a lark, a way to cash in on a bunch of movie critics and snobs who like to pretend that they treasure silent movies and will promote this film in spite of its rather dull circumstances.

I won't say it's purposefully insulting. Just disappointing.

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Posted by Danny

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Well I didn’t watch the film, so I think first I’ll watch it and then going to share a good compliment here. Thanks 🙂

  2. Interesting review. I think you’re right about the liberties it takes regarding the era. As a fan of silent film I was also a bit disappointed by The Artist – and at the same time, was delighted by the fact that a new silent movie has been made.

    • I know. It’s weird, right? I love Silent Film (the dreaminess, the distance of time to the world we’re seeing, the inventive ways to tell stories visually), but The Artist seems to eschew this 90% of the time for a fairly contemporary story that treats silent filmmaking as a gimmick rather than an artform. I still can’t get past how disappointed I was with it.

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