The Artist (2011)

14 January 2012

Beginning in 1927, The Artist's story unfolds over six or so years as Hollywood makes its transition from silent productions to full-on talkies. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, the film itself is a "silent", shot in loving black and white, replacing dialogue with intertitles and so on. Less authentic reproduction than knowing homage, the film's makers content themselves with a sincere enough feature-length pastiche. Beyond such mimicry, it struggles to be of further significance, though its casually flirtatious cinephilia has no doubt assisted its friendly reception by critics and historians.

As such, the film's appeal depends largely on how forgiving one feels of its flimsy and familiar story and the ways in which it skirts more intriguing strands to keep to its central romance and uphold a nostalgic detail and formal rigour. For my part, I found the film a letdown overall, though returning to Julien Allen's review for Reverse Shot makes me feel somewhat heartless.

However, Allen concludes his glowing review with a concession of sorts: "an obvious question cannot be ducked, one whose answer is bound to polarize critics: why? This simplest of stories has been told before, and we have access to silent films whose makers overcame such limitations rather than chose them, so to what end was this stylistic triumph created?" The question gets to the crux upon which the film's varying appeals rest; its answer will differ from critic to critic.

It's true that on the one hand there's a lot of talent on display here. Not only is the film's director suitably equipped with the know-hows of Silent Hollywood, its leading performers - Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller - are excellent. Production values in general are exemplary.

This is not the insightful entertainment that Singin' in the Rain (1952) was, though it does have its own sophistications. The inclusion - and even character development - of a dog provides comic relief to early scenes and cutesy pathos to a later tragedy piled on a tad thick. The problem is the film seems too bloated, its technical novelties brought down increasingly by a wishy-washy, worn narrative that fails to sustain a 100-minute running time.

When Kinograph, the studio to whom he is contracted, signs rising star Peppy Miller and decides to go ahead with a talking feature, Valentin stubbornly persists to direct his own feature "the old way". Its commercial failure leads to his eventual financial ruin, which cues an unendurably lengthy sequence of misery and self-pity from Valentin. The film's romanticism extends beyond that between its stars and allows for several contrivances, including an impossibly loyal butler (James Cromwell) who Valentin has to practically force out of his home, having not paid him in a year. You wonder, at this point, how they're living at all. At least Chaplin had the logical thinking to be a tramp in his films.

Beyond this, the characters are largely unsympathetic; Valentin's self-pity is overwhelming and unwarranted following the casual way in which he and the film itself deal with the departure of Doris, his neglected wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Ousting Doris is Peppy, a feisty dancer apparently concerned for Valentin enough to buy his auctioned memorabilia but not enough to keep in touch. Relative to these ultimately self-involved traits, the characters' more hospitable qualities appear absurd.

If the film's makers felt they had nothing to add to our understanding of Hollywood's industrial and social history, fair enough; what's annoying is the assumption that characters for whom we're never made to care - apparently, the dramatic stakes here amount to someone's artistic career - can provide a narrative with a genuinely feel-good fade to black.

According to the penultimate paragraph of this piece from four days ago, on Kim Novak's weirdly-worded arguments against the film's curious use of Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo (1958), The Artist is a current frontrunner for this year's best picture Oscar. Though praise for the film is understandable and even deserved, such buzz about a film that parades its style-over-substance so brazenly only draws attention to the continuing anti-intellectualism at work within the Academy.