Guest Review: The Artist

Wow. I have not posted in a while. Finals and holiday craziness were a great distraction, and now I am busy preparing the 5th Annual EMO Awards (nominees announced Jan. 1; ceremony Jan. 2, with winners posted likely posted late that night/early morning of the 3rd). I have a bunch of films to write up, and will try to get to them as soon as possible! In the meantime, to tide you over with some new content, Elaine has graciously stepped in with a review of critical darling/likely Oscar frontrunner “The Artist.” I have not yet seen the film, so I can make no comment on the thoughts and opinions expressed herein. Enjoy!

Does Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" deserve the overwhelming media praise it has received?

Last summer, I was lucky enough to have free tickets to a silent film festival. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy—just looking at the names got me excited enough to fill the entire theater with noise. But I had one problem: no one would go with me! For most of my friends, the words “black and white” were enough to dismiss a movie as boring. Silent? What does that even mean?

It is these early days of cinema, and the passing of the silent film era into the realm of talkies that Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” chronicles, utilizing many of the same tools as the world it brings to life. A black and white, mostly silent film, “The Artist” takes us back to a time when crowds filled opulent movie palaces to see gallant, dashing lovers rescue pale, swooning maidens on the silent silver screen, accompanied by a live orchestra. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), with his Rudolph Valentino name and Douglas Fairbanks smile, is at the height of his movie star glory as the film opens, basking in his unrivaled popularity and breaking female hearts on screen and off. One of these adoring fans is an aspiring young actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who meets her idol by accident—an accident that becomes her stepping stone to fame.

As Peppy talks her way into the hearts of America, George refuses to speak, stubbornly declining to change with the times and sneering at the advent of sound film. Abandoned by his studio and his wife, George slips more and more deeply into professional and personal ruin, accompanied by only his dog, his faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell) and ever-increasing glasses of alcohol.

For all its charm and originality, however, “The Artist” never makes full use of its potential. Part history lesson, part love story, this homage to silent cinema fails to really do either. At times, Hazanavicius seems too in love, or perhaps in awe, of the fact that his movie is silent and becomes lost in the gimmickry of it all instead of telling a truly moving story. The movie touches on the superficiality of Hollywood, the shallow smiles and the shiny houses, but is ultimately a reflection of it. Lacking in subtlety and courting exaggeration, “The Artist” is a pale imitation of the silent films it so desperately emulates. Instead of using its medium to its advantage, it often feels trapped by it, overstating its message in the fear that the audience won’t understand and failing to give its characters depth beyond their physical presence. Hazanavicius wants to celebrate the power and beauty of visual storytelling, but ultimately does not trust it to do the job.

While Dujardin and Bejo light up the screen with their faces that we just can’t resist, they aren’t given much to do other than to alternate between sparkling and brooding. Bejo in particular is left with the short end of the stick, relying on her expressive eyes and charming smile to salvage an otherwise lifeless character. Their relationship, upon which the film is founded, remains stunted and undeveloped, undermining the poignancy and emotion the film tries so hard to cultivate. For all their charm and beauty, Dujardin and Bejo can’t quite save the movie, though they do make it a much more pleasant experience.

In a cinematic year defined by nostalgia, “The Artist” never convinces us that we should miss or even care about silent film. While Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” this year’s other sweeping journey into the romantic past of moviemaking, revels in the magic and creativity of the bygone era and helps us experience its wonder first hand, “The Artist” offers nothing more but a smooth, peripheral glimpse that ultimately falls short. That being said, it does have its share of delightful moments, including a wonderful dance number reminiscent of Astaire and Rogers and yet another candidate for best cinematic canine of the year (new Oscar category, please!). All in all, “The Artist” is a refreshing, mostly entertaining treat, but for a real introduction to the silent era and the power of visual storytelling with no need for words, it’s best to stick to the classics.

Verdict: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars

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