Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Artist

Thanks to a Golden Globe win, the stamp of several critics’ organizations, and the good luck to have been released by a company with “Weinstein” in the name, Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist sits as a solid Best Picture front runner. Let’s get one thing straight: most of the people talking about a Best Picture win for The Artist don’t think it’s best film of the year, instead they prefer The Tree of Life, Hugo, or (I wish) Young Adult. What those people are really saying is that The Artist is the most Oscar-like film of the year, a film that conforms to certain well-established templates. It’s winning, tells a redemptive story, has a wide self-congratulatory streak, and of course has a hook. The Artist is, with the exception of a few brief sequences, as silent as a Charlie Chaplin picture, and it comes complete with those title cards inserted mid-shot to convey dialogue. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a 1920’s silent film star rather unprepared for the coming of talkies. The action of The Artist springs from Valentin’s chance encounter at a premiere with a fan named Peppy (Berenice Bejo, also a nominee), and the movie follows them both over the next few years as their fortunes head in opposite directions. A gallery of familiar faces fill out the supporting cast: there’s John Goodman as a cigar-chomping studio head, along with James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and an inexplicable Malcolm McDowell.

There’s a natural tendency to appreciate The Artist for the fact that exists at all. Someone did this, we tell ourselves; they wrote a script and worked with actors and came up with a visual scheme that honors 1920’s silent cinema. I had never heard of Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo before this movie, but Hazanavicius cast well. Dujardin has the looks and pulls off the swagger of a star of the era, and Bejo’s smile and eyes say what her mouth isn’t allowed to. Things get self-aware at times, there’s a funny dream sequence with sound added and a loyal dog sidekick, but except for those moments Hazanavicius keeps The Artist on the level of well-made homage. The film never breathes, save for one striking shot of Valentin and Peppy meeting on a staircase headed in opposite directions. It is a shiny valentine to the movies and to our romantic ideas of the movies, and nothing more. The Oscar voters don’t owe us social relevance or deep meaning with their choices, and I’ll admit it’s unfair to review a movie in the context of awards nominations. Yet as clever and appealing as The Artist is, what are we left with at the end? To watch a silent film in 2012, one made without irony, is to give over to another kind of cinema. But The Artist leaves us admiring the unfamiliar form and not enough of what‘s underneath; it’s novelty for its own sake