The Artist has been making waves in critical circles since it was first released at the 2011 Cannes film festival: opening to stunning reviews, it reached UK cinemas in November of that year, smack bang in the middle of Oscar season. It’s garnered 10 nominations (and is many experts’ pick for best film winner) whilst building a surprisingly respectable box office. It’s easy to see why it charmed so many but in all honesty, I both loved and loathed The Artist and am still struggling to reconcile the two responses.
The film opens in 1927 and tells the (fictional) story of George Valentin – a famous silent film star. We see the premier of his latest action epic: A Russian Affair, which involves dastardly villains, damsels in distress and heroic Valentin saving the day, with the help of his canine co-star “Jack” – a Jack Russell Terrier. Obviously, given the time period, A Russian Affair is a black and white silent movie. However, as we pan away from the screen to see both the audience and the anxious stars behind the stage, the main conceit of The Artist is revealed: the entire film is black and white, and silent. All the classic tropes are in place – title cards, anxious pauses, over-exaggerated mannerisms, and a near constant score. I’m not adverse to black and white or even silent films but both things originally existed out of necessity, rather than choice. Now the technology is available to do colour and sound, is there a reason for this? To stand out from the crowd? To make a point?
Leaving the premier, Valentin briefly meets an admirer among the screaming hordes, but they are separated before they can exchange anything more than a brief kiss. The next day, the admirer (whose actual name is Peppy Miller) auditions and lands a part in a dance chorus which, surprise surprise, is being filmed on the same sound stage as Valentin’s latest epic. However, at this point, an odd thing happened – a beautifully staged sequence introduces the two sweethearts to each other and my growing cynicism melted away. It’s an incredibly simple set-up (which I shan’t ruin here) but for me, it worked perfectly. There’s a second, equally brilliantly staged scene quickly after that (involving Peppy and a jacket) which, if nothing else, cemented the charm of the film.
Miller starts to make a name for herself as “Talkies” start being released (but of course, in the film these are still silent!). However as she ascends the Hollywood pyramid, Valentin drops quickly down the other side. Through a combination of circumstance (the studio owner thinks a new type of film needs a new breed of stars) and stubbornness (Valentin refuses to appear in talkies anyway) our hero is on the road to ruin. There’s very little plot beyond this but events take a surprisingly dark turn as Valentin’s life spirals downwards. Its impressive stuff in both composition and musical accompaniment but each time I started to get into the film itself, its over-elaborate style blocks me. A “real” actress intentionally overplaying the role of a newly minted “talkie” actress giving an interview about how all silent actors mug and overplay emotions to the camera, followed by a title card explaining what she said? This film has more layers than Inception!
The performances are solid but not spectacular. Jean Dujardin is at his strongest when his character Valentin is at the top, wooing housewives and studio owners with equal aplomb. However, during his descent, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with him as so many of his problems seem to be directly of his own making and Dujardin was never able to overcome these narrative issues. Bérénice Bejo is great as Peppy Miller, looking all the world like the wide-eyed star-struck girl ‘straight off the bus from Kansas’ in the early going, but also transitioning well into the more confident movie star later on. In many ways, I would have preferred to see more of her story than concentrating on Valentin quite so much. Some better known actors pop up in smaller roles, including John Goodman as studio boss Al Zimmer and James Cromwell as Valentin’s faithful (to the point of absurdity) butler Clifton. These familiar faces do slightly pull you out of the film when first seeing them, but that feeling soon passes and both provide ample support. There’s also an early blink-and-you’d-miss-it appearance from Malcolm McDowell. Which is nice.
There’s no doubt that writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has created something special with The Artist. At its best, there are moments of jaw-dropping beauty from the simplest of constructs and some scenes that might just break your heart. And yet, I could never escape the feeling of smug cleverness which pervades the film. It’s like the director is just off camera whispering “Look – we’re making a film about silent movies vs talkies, in silence. Oh aren’t we clever?” Every time I was about to get lost in the narrative, the conceit of the film pushed me away. Every time I was ready to pass judgement as a failure, another genius piece of cinema appeared that pulled me back in. Ultimately I felt like the aesthetic of the film was a barrier instead of an enabler – like a bad 3D conversion. Many have fallen for The Artist’s charms, and in some ways I envy them. But for me, it was just a little too smug for my tastes.
If Jack the dog doesn’t work his way into your affections, then you are cold hearted bastard. Or you find small yappy-type dogs an annoyance.