A silent film star of romantic adventures named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) refuses to ride the wave of the future at the onset of talkies and instead watches his career and marriage disintegrate while an ingenue he helped land her first role named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) becomes the toast of Hollywood.
Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a film that never allows you to forget that you are watching a film. From the opening moment where we are in a film within a film to the closing dance number, The Artist is self-aware and as in love with itself as George Valentin is with his stardom. It’s also a lovingly mounted and pure homage to silent films…but it’s the type of silent film it aims to be that is the major problem and prevents it from rising above charming gimmick status.
When I think of silent films that have stood the test of time as works of art, my mind instantly goes to such groundbreaking and unique pieces like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Abel Gance’s Napoleon. These are films that stretched the confines of what was possible at the time and offered something completely new that transcended the fact that they were silent – and most importantly, they were visually astounding. Sadly, Hazanavicius isn’t so ambitious and pays homage instead to the broad fluffy little romantic comedies of the day while mining knowledge from Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born. The film has some genuinely funny and touching moments – the former involving a lovable dog and the later involving Valentin sinking into quicksand (oh the symbolism!) – but what’s the point? And what’s new?
These types of homage have been done before. Spielberg is especially good at modernizing the old-fashioned. Then of course there was Todd Haynes’ eerily perfect homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950’s that was his 2002 film Far From Heaven. But what made Far From Heaven so great and memorable was that Haynes used the homage as a vehicle to explore the social and sexual mores of the time period and he put a very modern and relatable commentary on the themes. Again, Hazanavicius’ film looks and feels just like a real silent film from the late 1920’s – but what’s the point? There’s no deeper subtext. Is it entertaining? Yes, to a point, but I’m not going to deny I did almost nod off a few times.
And this thing works itself up into such a tizzy as the leads are undoubtedly charming and pitch perfect in all their mugging for the camera. It almost won me over in the final moments when George and Peppy do their dance number that ends with them smiling and their arms outstretched, out of breath and begging for applause. In one of the film’s inspired uses of sound design, we can suddenly hear the two stars panting. And I thought – what a great way to end a silent film! But then you hear someone yell “Cut!” and the shot pulls back and lingers far too long on the clamor of the set, bashing it over our heads yet again that this was just a movie. I couldn’t wait for the credits to finally roll.
For all of its quaint charms and pleasing period details, I’ve never seen a film look more beautiful and work so hard for nothing.
I was thinking of seeing this but now definitely won’t. Thanks
Jack – a lot of people really love it. As I know you are a big film buff, it’s still worth a look as a “curiosity” piece – but maybe wait for the DVD/Blu-ray. –DHS
David I’m of the same opinion as you. A superficial gimmick that is as deep as a rain puddle. I don’t get what all the fuss is about. The Artist is strictly second rate.
Maurizio – that feels good to know someone of your stature is in my corner as I know most have just gushed and gushed over this. –DHS
I haven’t seen The Artist yet and it’s due for release here shortly. But, I was waiting for your take on this as most other reviews were blowing it over the top. I have a more earnest and convincing review now and although I’ll still see it, I’ll approach it with caution and less-expectation.
Prakash – I’m glad I could lower your expectations – ha! My job is done here. –DHS
Boo, David, Boo! How you can love Melancholia, but not care for this is beyond me. I went into this movie prepared to hate it and ended up loving it. I was terrified that Hazanavicius would cop out and slowly integrate sound into the movie (and there is a moment when it looks like that will happen), but luckily he stuck to his guns. And in doing so created a charming homage to the early years of cinema.
You say there isn’t a deeper subtext, but its twin themes of the importance of changing with the times and loyalty can’t help but slap you in the face. I don’t know how deep these things are, but it IS a subtext. The silent aspect is only a gimmick if you choose to engage it solely on those terms.
For me the movie worked for only one reason: the stunning performance of Jean Dujardin. I felt like I was watching a silent film actor, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and John Gilbert rolled up into one. (He does these retro things well. He is the only reason to watch those OSS movies, the 1950s spy spoofs, as a charming misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and totally clueless French spy.) I love his exuberance, his smile, his confidence, and to watch that all crumble is fairly heartbreaking. I won’t say much more, as I plan to write my own review, but just know you are wrong on this one.
Jason – Muwahaha! What can I say other than that I’m a cold-hearted SOB who enjoys artsy movies about the end of the world and depression over artsy movies about old movies and romance? –DHS
I won’t go so far as to say you’re wrong, but obviously I disagree (as documented elsewhere). I think the charming gimmick works fine in and of itself, and it doesn’t necessarily need a deeper meaning to feed me once it’s hooked me. I just saw it as a far superior way of saying what Hugo tried to say, action over commentary. I’ll definitely admit that it’s a lightweight wafer with an uneven and laborious middle, even compared to an earlier Euro-import as saccharine like Amelie, but it just suited me fine.
A better movie would have explored the dream more often, but then it might’ve veered into accusations of being derivative or belonging to the 1960s.
I actually kept thinking while watching this what an interesting movie it would’ve have been had someone like David Lynch directed it. The whole movie-within-a-movie/dream-within-a-dream aspect could’ve been played up. It would’ve been hard for Lynch to keep the same tone – but a little bit of dread under the bubbly romance would’ve been most welcome in my book. –DHS
I haven’t seen it yet and fully intend to do so, but I’ve long suspected that “The Artist” would turn out more like what you’ve described than something that deserves to steamroll the various awards ceremonies as this one seems poised to do.
Hopefully, it’ll hit my little market soon!
Julio – for me it was a well-made, moderately entertaining trifle completely in love with itself and serving no greater purpose. I guess that self-love was infectious which is why critics have gushed and it seems poised to take home Oscar gold. Thankfully I was immune to this contagion. –DHS