The Artist (2011)
Ever since it charmed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, The Artist has been one hot commodity. The Weinstein Company snapped up the film rights though they have a bit of a hard sell. The movie takes place in the era of silent movies and it also happens to be a silent movie itself. Ignoring Mel Brooks’ unsung efforts, asking paying customers to sit through 100 minutes of silence, albeit accompanied by a musical score, may be a risky financial bet. That’s where the appeal of being an award-winner comes into play. The Artist has been racking up awards since Cannes and has been tagged by many as the favorite to take home a Best Picture Oscar. This celebration of the Hollywood of old is a nostalgic trip through the ages, but I’m doubtful that the film is deserving of the gushing admiration. I think this would have been better had it been one of them new-fangled talkies.
In 1927, the biggest star in Hollywood is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His latest spy caper is knocking them dead. He’s prancing before a sea of photographers when he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). He graciously brings her into the act and the two pose for pictures. “Who’s the new girl?” demands the newspaper headlines. Peppy is given her big break as George’s co-star in his spy series. Peppy is a natural and over the course of two years she becomes a bona fide star. Also over those two years Hollywood has undergone a drastic makeover. New “talkies” are all the rage with the public, who now demand to hear their favorite actors speak. George is adamant that talking pictures are only a fad and he plunks his personal fortune to bankroll his directorial debut. The movie is a flop. George is viewed as a has-been; yet Peppy has been keeping a watchful eye on her old friend and waiting for the time to reveal her love for the fallen star.
The Artist is a completely silent movie except for two key sequences; one of them a nightmare where George hears objects make noise. The film is an unabashed love letter to old Hollywood, and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes witty use of the storytelling techniques of the silent era. Much relies on editing and reactions for shaping the narrative. The story, therefore, is broken down to its simplest incarnation. Peppy Miller’s star rises, as George’s grows fainter. Still, The Artist has many recognizable pieces for fans of the silent era. George even has a trusted Jack Russell Terrier at his side, a clever pooch with keen mimicking abilities. There’s a cute moment where Peppy slips her arm into George’s coat hanging on a coat rack and pretends to caress her self as him. It’s a small yet slyly tender moment. It’s not a prerequisite to be well versed on silent cinema, though it helps. While a French film (a foreign designation seems superfluous when it’s silent), the movie was shot in Los Angeles and is stocked with English stars like John Goodman (TV’s Treme) as a film director, James Cromwell (Babe) as George’s dutiful butler, Penelope Ann Miller (Flipped) as George’s unhappy wife, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as a silent film co-star, Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) as a maid, Ken Davitian (Borat) as a pawnbroker, and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween II) as a dismissive old man in a chair (the role he was bon to play). It almost becomes a side game of cameos.
It’s a sprightly, charming, sometimes enchanting little experiment, but in the end an experiment is all the movie turns out to be. The Artist is no great story; in fact it’s pretty much the 80th rendition of A Star is Born. The transition between silent films and talkies is a subject rife with drama, and a lead character who sees his fame and fortune crumble by being left behind in a changing society, well that should be interesting. What’s surprising to me the most about this film is how little you invest with it. I don’t know if it’s the silent gimmick or just the idle characterization, but I found myself never really engaging with the movie, always a step removed. The characters were nice but I neither celebrated their triumphs nor bemoaned their hardships. The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here. Praise Hazanavicius for his dedication to silent filmmaking techniques, but let’s be reasonable here because The Artist is a pleasant experiment but nothing more. The characters and story do not bear scrutiny. This story would have been more interesting had the movie been a traditional talky. Alas, we are limited to a handful of title cards with single lines of dialogue and extreme amounts of pantomiming. If you took away the central gimmick, would anyone be interested in this movie? I wanted to be swept away by The Artist after reading all the fawning accolades, but I wasn’t. The commitment of the artists on screen is commendable but the finished product is little more than an amusing trifle of a movie.
Dujardin (OSS: Lost in Rio) and Bejo (Modern Love) look like they stepped off the screen from an old Hollywood movie, al la Purple Rose of Cairo. Dujardin is a suave presence with great comedic physicality at his disposal. There’s a poignant moment where George, broken down and washed up, looks into a tuxedo store window, seeing his reflection appear above the neck of the tuxedo. He gingerly smiles, wistful of times gone by, and in that sad, face crinkling little moment, Dujardin reveals more about the man behind the flashbulbs than the script ever will. Even without a word spoken, you can tell that Dujardin and Bejo have great chemistry. Bejo, the wife of the director by the way, matches Dujardin note for note in terms of star wattage. She’s got a terrific smile and one of those classic faces for an Age When They Had Faces. It’s a shame that the characters don’t have more interaction.
The Artist is a fine film but ultimately disappointing given the hype. The saddest part about my reaction to The Artist is how little I find myself having to say about this much-ballyhooed silent film. It’s an exercise in nostalgic back-patting, but if you strip away the silent movie gimmick I feel like there’s so little at heart here. I walked away liking the movie, being charmed by the actors but feeling unengaged and mildly indifferent. The threadbare story is too familiar, the characterization is slight, and the movie ultimately becomes light, airy, and insubstantial. The novelty eventually does wear off and you may find yourself adding a mental commentary to the film to fill in the blanks. You’d have to be a Scrooge to resist the film’s whimsy and the talents of the charismatic performers, but I’m scratching my head at the adulation give to The Artist. In a year heavy with reminiscence, The Artist overdoses on feel-good Hollywood nostalgia, and in a down year at the movies, perhaps that’s enough when it comes time for awards.
Nate’s Grade: B