The Artist: Not A Best Picture, But A Charming Picture

The Artist is destined to be a victim of high expectations. I’m not referring to audiences who will see it inevitably clean up at the Golden Globes this weekend (and quite possibly the Oscars), but to those enticed by the allure of a return to the silent film era. I’m a big fan of silent film stars like Keaton, Chaplin, and Fairbanks, along with being a big fan of Astaire, Kelly, and Busby Berkeley– this film’s trailer was like cat nip for me. Ultimately, the constant allusions to great films like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Singin’ In The Rain (among others) serve mostly to inform the audience that this film isn’t great. It’s a charming, fun, but slight pastiche of cinematic history, with great performance, great production design, and a patchwork script.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest film star in Hollywood. He’s a Douglas Fairbanks-esque action hero and ladies’ man extraordinaire. One day on a red carpet he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and her picture ends up on the cover of Variety. Due to coincidence (fate?), she ends up on Valentin’s next movie set and they forge a bond. He insists she get a small role in the film and gives her some career advice. When the studio head (John Goodman) informs Valentin at the end of shooting that silent films are out and sound pictures are in, Valentin finds his star beginning to fall and Miller’s star begins to rise. Valentin is flabbergasted at this new medium and how quickly the world has lost interest– he puts all of his money into a silent film written, directed, produced, and funded by himself. Meanwhile, Miller still holds a candle to Valentin and hopes he succeeds.

The director, Michel Hazanavicius, has composed a really beautiful film. The cinematography, in adjusted silent film ratio, is memorable, as are the costumes, the production design, and the ever-present music– this is a movie that is going to be nominated for nearly every technical category at the Oscars. The Artist is at its best when it’s on set creating its films within the film. The most memorable scene is one in which we see Valentin fall for Miller, doing take after take, always spoiled by Valentin amd Miller smittenly giggling during their brief scene interaction. Other memorable moments– when Valentin dances with an anonymous set of legs, a finale musical number– all use familiar silent film archetypes to highlight the characters’ chemistry and connection. A terrific scene even incorporates sound in a manner so affecting that it audibly startled the audience I saw it with.

While my favorite scenes are unique to this film, Hazanavicius borrows heavily from other movies to make his film a loving patchwork to a bygone era. The plot points are directly from both A Star Is Born and Singin’ In The Rain, and there are blatant homages to Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and more. The problem with these references are that they’re purely diegenic, without direct reference to their origins. The Vertigo music (the source of a recent controversy with actress Kim Novak) is used in a similar circumstance– a person in love trying to rescue their suicidal love interest– but there’s no mention of the existence of Hitchcock or Vertigo in this world. It’s only a reference to those who know Vertigo; to everyone else, it’s original music for this film. The film’s goal seems to be to remind people of the value of this era in cinematic history, yet the actual history doesn’t exist– if The Artist doesn’t persuasively encourage casual filmgoers to seek out silent film, and its references to the era only play to film buffs, then it seems to me that it’s the film equivalent of preaching to the choir. It’s like any kiddie flick that uses the line “Say hello to my little friend!”: the audience laughs without really knowing why.

Even stranger is the fact that this film isn’t *really* in the style of a silent film. It’s a contemporary film in silent film clothing. The ratio is correct, true, and a few editing tricks here and there are accurate homages, but the acting style and comic sensibilities seem more akin to a Gene Kelly film. You won’t see Chaplin, Keaton, or Fairbanks here. You might see them in the amusing films-within-a-film– the movie shows us something closer to silent movie style in the silent movies George Valentin makes, but the rest of the film is unmistakably contemporary. There’s nothing wrong with this– it’s part of the movie’s charm, really– but it makes the movie all the more slight. It’s not committed to being a silent movie, it’s committed to being merely an amusing contemporary homage.

Dujardin and Bejo’s chemistry makes the movie seem more meaningful than it is. Their chemistry sparkles– they both have old-school Hollywood good looks and a vaudevillian sense of comedic timing. Dujardin is destined to cross over and be big in America, as his earnest sensibility and winning smile make him a credible leading man (or, more likely, a villain… or perhaps the leading man’s charismatic European confidant). Even as the movie starts to drag near the end, he keeps the proceedings very watchable. Bejo isn’t given much to do except to be charming and look longingly at Dujardin, but she makes the character of Peppy stretch a long way. The performances and technical achievement in The Artist are definitely praise-worthy, but the movie is ultimately cinematic cotton candy– it tastes great but doesn’t fill you up. Don’t go in expecting a Best Picture, because it’s nowhere to be found; just expect a pleasant charming diversion.

Note: I’m not really pleased with the tone of this review, as it focuses on the negative largely due to outside forces beyond the film’s control. If I’d never heard of this movie nor seen a trailer, I would have been delighted by the diversion and the clever gimmick. It’s sad but inevitable that a deluge of Best Picture buzz makes one compelled to accentuate the film’s shortcomings despite the joys it brings. I can’t talk about how I felt leaving the theater without emphasizing how the lack of euphoria disappointed me, despite still having enjoyed the experience. It’s one of those. See the film for yourself, and if you’re totally out of any and all loops, you may (rightly) find the tone of my 3-kernel review oddly negative.

~ by russellhainline on January 20, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Artist: Not A Best Picture, But A Charming Picture”

  1. I haven’t seen the film yet so the execution may leave something to be desired but I’m generally in favor of more subtle insider references. Yeah, some people (most?) miss them but because they’re subtle, they don’t feel excluded. For those who do catch the references, they feel a closer connection. Also, for those that miss them, it’s an added layer of interest if they read about it in a review and rewatch the film or happen to see one of the classic films later.

  2. […] Carey Mulligan, Drive 9. Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter 8. Elle Fanning, Super 8 7. Berenice Bejo, The Artist 6. Shailene Woodley, The Descendants 5. Anjelica Huston, 50/50 4. Melanie Laurent, Beginners 3. […]

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