Longtime readers will know, it’s very rare for us to write about the same film twice. The only other two films that we’ve written multiple reviews on are Sucker Punch (here’s my, Ryan, and Danny’s take on the film) and Hobo With A Shotgun (here’s my and Jacob’s take). Both of these films were really divisive amongst us, but aren’t the kind of highbrow fare I thought I would be debating when I started writing about film this much.
Now there’s The Artist, a ridiculously well received film that made a load of cash worldwide and received a bushel of awards. The reputation that preceded my viewing was one of, if not pristine classiness, than one of charming goodwill toward a time in film that is rarely ever revisited. So this seemed to be another good time to go back and review something that we’ve already touched upon because a silent film being made and received like this isn't going to happen again in a long time. The sad truth is this is not going to start a trend toward mass-marketed silent films, partly because their time has mostly gone outside of a dedicated niche and this whole film comes off more as a ploy masked in earnestness than a genuine silent film.
After shaking my head at The Artist I was left at a rare impasse, I actually disliked a film more than Danny did. Oh King of Crumudgeons, I come for your crown.If that seems a bit drastic then that’s because The Artist is lacking in the kind of huge emotion that is needed to push it into a realm I would consider good. As it stands the film stays away from the central subject of silence far too often. Of course, we saw people talking to each other in the good ol’ days of silent film, but at times it seemed the dialogue was never-ending and I just wanted someone to do some acting.
That is where The Artist should have been absolutely flawless but comes off as very dry. This is why the reception Jean Dujardin’s performance received vexes me. It’s amiable enough to survive a dry run at some of Jason Segel’s charm, but aside from the rare close-up on his face it’s completely lacking in energy. I did not buy his late-film descent into the abyss for a second because he never sold it with his body and the camera was rarely on his face long enough to make an imprint of his sadness.
Both of these mistakes are repeated in multiple instances throughout the entire film. There is very little acting done by the bodies of Valentin (Dujardin) and the Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). They have names that seem to fit in with the times of the ‘20s that the film is aiming for, and the costume design sure is striving for the same thing, but nothing else about their bodies or presentation fits in with this. The ‘20s are kept at a distance because film was so damned experimental at that point there stood the chance that if The Artist was a true ode to those times then it might be off-putting.
Instead it settles on cinematic grammar that owes a larger debt to films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Danny noted Singin’ in the Rain as a big influence, and it’s impossible to think of that final dance sequence without anyone in the creative team seeing Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds smile onscreen. But they didn’t learn anything from it. The final dance scene, like too many other shots in the film, is cut up in a way that they’re enthusiasm is similarly broken up. Valentin and Peppy didn’t earn that breathless final moment the way their predecessors did.For a film that goes out of the way to pay tribute to these times the whole thing comes off as disappointing and manufactured. The primary visual style seems to be trying to pull more from Citizen Kane than anything Douglas Fairbanks would have starred in, which given the results is like painting a Bob Ross when you’re striving for Da Vinci.
There is little faith in the visuals. Again, for a tribute to silent film that’s odd, but the aggressive scoring is even stranger. I don’t have the same kind of background for silent movies that Danny does. I love Buster Keaton beyond all measure and have seen a number of the classics (Battleship Potekmin, City Lights). But I know that the score is supposed to be underlining the emotion instead of punctuating every single action.
If you were blind and someone told you what two characters were entering the frame then you would be able to accurately predict everything that happened on basis of the score alone. This is a sign of some talented musicians, but a weakness in a director who is supposed to be telling a story through images. By itself this is bad enough, but there were enough static camera shots that no emotion would have been conveyed without the insistent music letting every emotion be bolded, especially since the film is so afraid of using full-face close-ups that we couldn’t see more acting even if the performers were trying their hardest.
Where are the extreme camera angles? Where are the long-form dance sequences? Where is the gloriously expressive acting? Where’s the giddy sensation of trying something new? Or at least feeling like something old is coming alive in new hands?
The Artist starts, some people smile, then frown, and smile again while the gimmick runs through the motions. To know so many words and none of the passion, that's just not good enough for me.