Now that I’ve finally seen our presumptive Oscar winner for myself, I thought it prudent to offer up my own thoughts on the latest recipient of Harvey Weinstein’s magic tough. For comparison, you can also look back at Elaine’s review.
There is a tap dancing sequence fairly early on in “The Artist” that simply makes you want to hug everyone involved. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), on the set of his latest movie, encounters a pair of disembodied but rather attractive legs (a well-placed screen happens to block off the rest of this mystery woman). In a scene that could’ve been lifted straight out of an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical, Valentin and the unseen dancer proceed to duel back and forth, mimicking each other precisely. This is charming, old-fashioned filmmaking, the sort that didn’t need to be depressing to be engaging and didn’t need to be obscene to be fun.
In a year where films like “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris” and “War Horse” have all engaged in varying levels of cinematic nostalgia, “The Artist” is undoubtedly the most self-conscious throwback of all: it’s a silent, black-and-white movie about people who make silent, black-and-white movies. Academy Awards, eat your heart out.
While “The Artist” is certainly targeted to appeal to industry insiders and hardcore cinephiles (hi!), writer-director Michel Hazanavicius (of the French James Bond-parody series “OSS 117”) has his work cut out for him when it comes to winning over general audiences. Silent filmmaking, generally considered an obsolete process, is really an art unto itself, one that requires attentive viewers and a serious knack for visual expression. It’s a method of storytelling that most people today are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with.
Hazanavicius’ solution to this problem is to make “The Artist” as broad and agreeable as possible. Even if you don’t know much about silent film, you know the story: Valentin, a famous Hollywood actor, has a chance meeting with a beautiful fan, Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius’ wife, Bérénice Bejo), who is determined to be a movie star herself. Before long, their careers are headed in opposite directions: thanks to the invention of “talkies” (movies with sound), Peppy’s celebrity grows rapidly, while the older Valentin is left in the dust.
This basic narrative has been used over and over, from “A Star Is Born” to “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd,” so there is not much inherent tension in “The Artist.” Sometimes we are simply waiting for the usual plot beats to play themselves out, and the film has the unfortunate quality of dragging right when it is supposed to be building to a climax.
The plot, though, is simply a vehicle for Hazanavicius to perform his homage to silent film, and along the way he employs a number of amiable tricks to hold the audience’s attention. Besides the delightful dance numbers, there is an unexpected, nightmarish scene that plays with the audience’s newfound expectation of silence to haunting effect. And Valentin’s dog is possibly the most adorable canine performer ever (the unbearably cute appearance of Uggie the dog at this year’s Golden Globes probably sealed the film’s inevitable Oscar victory).
Dujardin and Bejo are key to the film’s success. Both have clearly studied the great performers of the late 1920’s: with his winning smile and remarkably animated eyebrows, Dujardin cuts such a handsome figure that Douglas Fairbanks would be jealous, and Bejo’s easy screen presence evokes Claudette Colbert or Carole Lombard. Along with some great character actors like John Goodman, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle, these two carry the movie with their ability to tell a whole story using nothing but their face.
Hazanavicius, however, doesn’t seem to have quite the same confidence in his cast’s abilities. The director has done a lot to recreate the silent film experience as accurately as possible (including having theaters project it in the old, boxy, 1.33:1 screen ratio), but he makes a misstep in his use of intertitles. There is a stereotype, reinforced here, that silent films often featured actors flapping their mouths wordlessly on the screen, followed by an intertitle card explaining in the dialogue. In fact, if the actors are really doing their jobs, such clarification is extraneous, and silent filmmakers knew that, finding ways to express exposition visually. Though he is making a silent movie, Hazanavicius is still a bit stuck in the mindset that dialogue is necessary to tell a story.
This is not the only time that “The Artist” gets caught up in its own gimmicks. An early shot of a large crowd noiselessly clapping is overly contrived, a ham-fisted way of saying “LOOK IT’S A SILENT MOVIE, GUYS!!!” And Ludovic Bource’s score, overall an extremely valuable asset to the film, curiously quotes Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from “Vertigo” in a critical scene, in a distracting reference that is both anachronistic and thematically out of place. “The Artist” is too self-conscious to be completely engrossing; it insists on making constant winks to the audience, just to make sure we remember that we are watching something out of the ordinary.
And make no mistake, “The Artist” is anything but ordinary. It has been literally decades since we’ve seen any silent film appear outside of obscure film festivals, much less one so endearing. You could list its shortcomings (as I have), but that would disregard the fact that above all, “The Artist” is just a pleasure to watch. It may not be a profound film, but it’s certainly a likable one.
Now playing in indie theaters.
Ethan’s Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars