Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
I really like silent movies. I really like movies about show business and the movies themselves. I really like director Michel Hazanavicius’ prior OSS 117 series of French spy-movie parodies. These three things should Voltron up to make The Artist, a silent movie about the end of the silent era, widely regarded as one of the best movies of 2011, a movie tailor-made to get me to gush all over it like the cinematic fanboy I usually am. Instead I think it’s actually kind of bad. I might as well put that out there, so we can get along with talking about why.
To begin with, The Artist is the story of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). He is at the height of his popularity as the movie opens in 1927, and during another of his wildly successful premiers he runs into a young nobody named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who charms him and the papers. An aspiring actress, Valentin gives her her shot just in time for her to become the first darling of sound cinema. The movie goes on to chart her rising star and his utter ruin as he refuses to move into the silent era with everyone else.
Plot stuff out of the way, let’s get down to the important stuff. The major conceit of The Artist is that it’s a movie made in 2011, shot in 1.33:1, black and white, and is a silent film. In every way, then, it attempts to portray the movies of the time it’s covering. That is the core of it, the cinematic raison d’etre, and I just want to be clear about that before we proceed. Because everything I’m about to talk about as a negative could be circumvented if this conceit didn’t exist. Simply put, its gimmick is utilized poorly, and ruins the film.
We’ll start with the way it’s shot, which is the majority of the problem. It’s a handsome film, with beautiful lighting and some solid, rich shot composition. The problem is that it immediately smacks of the wrong era. The movie mostly delights in the kind of coverage heavy, two-shot-close-up structure that demarcates not the silent era, but the big studio times of the 40s. Scenes are filled with too much of the kind of details of later films, which only makes the sets that do look period-appropriate that much more jarring.
This gets even worse when the film descends into some of its moodier moments in the later half, favoring dutch angles and the kind of lingering, sweeping cameras of mid-to-late period noir and later Hitchcock, which is all well and good but is the cinema of a later time with sensibilities rooted in an evolved form of art. This isn’t just a shot choice thing, either, but a fundamental problem. The camera in The Artist, with few exceptions, belongs to the film maker of a post proscenium era. None of the hallmarks of the 1920s (or even the 1930s) exist throughout most of the story.
This trickles down to the storytelling itself, too, which is far too talky for a silent picture and paced in such a way as to belie it’s modern heritage. Nobody would mistake this, even if the film had received a roughening treatment, as a movie from its era. Dialog cards carry on at length and too little of the storytelling is told visually. For a movie that apparently is a love letter to an era of cinema, it seems to fundamentally misunderstand how those movies were put together. I can only assume the presumption is modern audiences wouldn’t catch it, which is both a little insulting and more than a little lazy.
It’s unfortunate, too, because there’s actually a few scenes where they get it so right that it makes you wish the film would have been reconstructed with those things in mind. There’s an amazing scene a third of the way in where Valentin starts hearing sounds in a nightmare that’s genuinely interesting, playing with image and foley in a way reminiscing of experimental short films of the era. And there is a film-making montage mid-picture that is so period-perfect, from the array of text put on screen to the newspaper press background to the composition of wildly desperate elements to form one surreal image. That stuff works, and works so well that it almost is enough to prop up the rest of the film, but it’s all too brief and its inclusion only makes the rest of the movie that much more obviously uncomfortable with its conceit.
Now, I’ll admit a lot of these are technical problems. So let’s talk about the story. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to talk about, because outside of the plot synopsis there really isn’t a lot of nuance to it. I think it’s telling that the most likable, interesting character is Valentin’s dog. There’s a lot of charicature here, but not much in the way of character, to the point where it seems stubborn in its refusal to evolve past a cartoonish, ham-fisted homage to early silent romance. In fact, the times when the movie seems to actually start to indulge in some complexity, it quickly jumps to something else and avoids the interesting stuff. This is most obvious in the scenes towards the end where Valentin, despondent, seems ready to give up on life. He even ends up trying to kill himself–not once, but twice. Yet his recovery is utterly glossed over to race to a happy finish, and it sadly comes right on the heels of a missed opportunity that could have turned much the film around.
Earlier in the film, Valentin had sold off all of his things in order to make enough money to live on after he was ruined in the stock market crash. He watches sadly as its all sold at auction. Later, he’s taken in by Peppy after he tries to burn his house down and nearly kills himself doing so. While he wanders her house, he discovers a dark room left undisturbed. Inside, he finds all of his things, neatly stored underneath dropcloths. It’s a moment of uncertainty and even fear, underlined by an ominous score, reaching its crescendo when he recognizes the people at the auction as Peppy’s staff, apparently sent by her to buy all his belongings.
Now, this is actually a pretty amazing scene, well worthy of Hitchcock (again out of time for the era it purports to represent, but whatever), a turn where the movie could have veered into the direction where Peppy maybe isn’t entirely to be trusted. Certainly it seems like obsessive, stalker behavior. Valentin is visibly unnerved by it. It would be a surreal twist worthy of Vertigo (which has its score actually used in parts of the movie) and taken the whole thing down an interesting, darker path. But nothing comes of it, and it’s never referred to again, instead happily plodding along towards its all’s-well happy ending. No, it’s far too content to ride its superficial presentation well past the point of welcome. Easier than actually saying anything with this movie, this story, or this technique.
The Artist seems built to fool people. It’s a sham of a movie, a thin watered down romantic comedy flirting as if it were saying something about people or about show business. I wish I could say it takes up the fine tradition of All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard, or hell I’d even settle for the much-better and too-similar Singin’ in the Rain. Instead it’s none of those things, with a story more interested in being cute than being good and a cast that for all their efforts manages to capture none of the enthusiasm and energy of the fascinating era they try to represent.
I don’t know why it happened this way, because it seems so avoidable. A better script and dropping the silent gimmick (because it, in truth, does nothing to enrich the film) would have done wonders for the talent so misappropriated. A noir, even a screwball showbiz comedy, embracing the 40s/50s style the people involved seem much more comfortable with would have been far better than what we got. Not only would the themes and tone fit the images on screen, but everyone would have been much more at ease with their natural talents. I’m simply not sure that modern filmmakers can genuinely recreate such a unique moment in time, and if they aren’t committed to doing it proper justice I don’t feel it worth even trying.