A Review of The Artist

When it was first released,  The Artist was greeted with the sort of buzz that makes most people downright skeptical. It was a silent, black and white film that was being hailed as a masterpiece. Those elements seemed to make the average theater goer seem confused and angry. This is not what they are expecting. Films aren’t supposed to actually be worth watching unless something explodes within the first five minutes.

Well, if The Artist does have any flaws, it’s that the film is not a very challenging one at first glance. During its run time, viewers are not really asked to think about the nature of silent films and why they could still be artistically relevant, even after talking pictures have been around for 85 years. For that, well, nothing will ever top Metropolis.

But the technique is still used wonderfully to explore the change, not just in an empty-headed man, but in the way it explores the sudden change all of Hollywood had to endure. In that sense, The Artist is very similar to Singing in the Rain, minus the singing. It is also a film that shows us why old Hollywood may have been flawed, but is still better than what we are getting today.

The film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent film star who has a chance encounter with Hollywood dancer Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) after the premiere of his latest silent blockbuster. Valentin convinces studio boss Al Zimmer (a perfectly cast John Goodman) to cast her in bit parts. However, with the advent of talking pictures, those two find themselves at a crossroads. Valentin considers talkies to be a useless gimmick, while Miller embraces them. As a result, Valentin’s star fades, while Miller’s soars. Valentin sinks into a deep depression and wonders if he will ever be able to regain his status.

The film works as well as it does is because of Dujardin and Bejo’s performances. It would have been an error to cast known stars for the roles (even though Dujardin is fairly well-known in his native France for the OSS films). We would expect them to speak. Silent film stars had to depend on vibrant eyes and exaggerated expressions. Both of these actors have those qualities. Watch the scene (present in the trailer), in which they meet for the first time. Peppy bumps into Valentin, at the major star’s newest premiere. They stare at each other, thinking dramatically different things. Valentin seems annoyed, Miller is hopelessly embarrassed. And then they both laugh at the awkwardness of the situation – without uttering a syllable.

They could have worked as silent film actors back in the 1920s, and would have probably been remembered for the ages.

It was with this scene of the actors meeting that I knew The Artist was going to be a competent silent film. But then, so what? WHY should the film be considered among the best of 2011? Because it’s  not something people make today? No one drives Model T Fords either, but that is not a reason to assume that someone using it on the interstate would be the best driver of the year.

That is not an easy question to answer. Nor is it a question that I can give the definitive answer. But a part of that answer may have to do with the critic’s love for films about film making. But then I will say that, for all of the criticism that audiences and theaters gave it, The Artist goes out of its way to be a crowd pleasing drama. This is actually somewhat damaging for its theme (I’ll get to that in a minute) but then again, that positivism makes the film a spiritual successor to Hollywood musicals. Those musicals, I might add, are still being viewed by people who would rather eat poison than watch a film made before their birth. Why? Because of the pageantry, and the upbeat sentiments. The Artist actually uses them as a commentary on Hollywood and society, rather than being something that was forced. Why should a vain man like Valentin be given a second chance? The Artist doesn’t answer the question, but then again, neither did Fred Astaire. At the very least, The Artist is successful in pointing out the flaws of the Hollywood tradition.

Of course, the film is also meant to be an exploration of art as commodity and the old studio bosses not giving a damn about what the filmmaker’s intentions were. We were so lucky they did not go out of their way to pander to the lowest common denominator, but then it could have gone another way. One needs only look at the summer blockbuster season to see what I mean.The Artist barely played in American theaters until its Oscar nominations were announced. One could almost see this film predicting its response, when Valentin’s new silent film is played to a mostly empty theater, while everyone else lines up to the new talkie. We don’t see any clips from Peppy Miller’s big break, but we do see moments from Valentin’s directorial attempt. And frankly, it looks like a rather unconventional, dynamic film with a bittersweet ending and a man trying to destroy his traditional marquee image. Miller’s film just seems like the typical screwball comedy. It would be easy to guess which film is remembered today as a work of art. But that is not enough to help Valentin’s descent into bankruptcy and madness, while allowing Miller’s star to rise. How many times have you asked why certain people still get work as actors? This film helps explain why. It’s because we, as an audience, leap to whatever seems new.

Maybe that is why the film did as well as it did with critics, and why it will continue to be seen as good for years to come. At a time when we continuously see films that, although technically well made and with a host of gimmicks to throw at audiences, The Artist gloriously thumbs its nose at that mentality and wants to explore why older films should still be considered by new audiences. That is a downright revolutionary stance to take in this climate. Maybe that is why The Artist has a happy ending. It is the old still showing the younger generation how to properly get it right – and when that happens, The Artist will be seen as leading the charge. Besides, Valentin manages to get his star back without saying a word.

There will be some people who don’t like The Artist because they do not want to watch a silent film for any reason. I cannot help those people. There are others who say that the film is not a revealing enough look at the nature of silent films. Those people may be right. But I loved The Artist when I saw it last December, and I love it now. The film is a revealing portrait of a system that requires what should be art to be commodities, even if that mentality can cost people their lives. Yes, The Artist has a happy ending, but there are many similar stories that do not.  But maybe the trends that we are currently having will pass, and we will all expect popular films to be artful again.

And yes, the dog was cute. That seems to be something that everyone needs to mention when talking about this film. So see it for Uggie at least.

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