The Artist

I guess I had a built in resentment towards The Artist. The intellectual side of me said that there was a definite reason why silent films gave way to ‘talkies’ so many years ago. People prefer to listen rather than read or even imagine . It is still true today, as films that require you to read subtitles are not always a first choice of the movie going public.

In my own experience (referencing the change over from silent films to talkies – as an example, I preferred the Laurel & Hardy short comedy reels with spoken dialogues to the silent Charlie Chaplins. Of course my experience with these comedies was through the medium of television rather than a movie house. I guess I felt that watching people emote and tell you how they felt through their facial expressions or body language was more work, which would require me to do more imagining, and they also denied me the beauty of the spoken words.

But silent films were made, exhibited, and enjoyed. Yet, they went away.

When I first heard of The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius, I immediately went in search of a trailer. The trailer showed me that the leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, along with the supporting players like Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, and James Cromwell – all looked good, and that there was a certain joy to them despite the fact that Dujardin’s role was that of George Valentin, a silent films movie star, whose career would hit the skids with the advent of talkies. Not because he wasn’t talented, but instead, because he couldn’t see the future, and because of that he wouldn’t even try. As he said, ‘if this is the future, then you can have it‘.

In my mind, this was a variation of Singing in the Rain – the classic Hollywood musical. But it is not just that simple. This film was a period drama taking place in Hollywood the between the years 1927 and 1932. I wasn’t around in those days, but I know that in the contemporary times the Oscar voters love period pieces. I also resented that the NY Film Critics Circle came out very early and called The Artist their choice of Best Picture before they had even seen some other films that would also be called contenders for Best Picture.

Well yesterday I was in chilly Eastern Connecticut and today I am back home in chilly Sarasota, Florida. When the temps are in thirties and forties, and the beach isn’t an option, the locals flock to the movies. So today, finally, yours truly met … The Artist.

First the Pros:

The actors were just great. That would mean Dujardin, Bejo, Cromwell, Goodman, and Miller. Everyone else was either an extra, or had a one or two line role in which they likely said their lines aloud, but not so you could hear them. Dujardin had a glamourous look and feel to him when he was the brightest light in Hollywood; and when he fell to the depths of despair – he was the forgotten man – and it was written all over his face. But he didn’t come off as overdone or ‘theatrical’. He seemed the real thing. I actually loved and appreciated his performance.

Berenice Bejo was the girl who accidentally met (bumped into him at the premier) Dujardin’s George Valentin. She carried off the innocent ingenue briefly and superbly. But at an audition, when the Assistant Director called for girls who could dance, she was so good , she was hired on the spot. Once she got her foot in the door, her roles grew in size, and name kept rising higher and higher in the cast list. She had stardom written all over her.

Goodman was the studio head and he wore a three piece suit throughout and had the ever-ready cigar always in hand but usually not lit. This was a role that most likely would have gone to Edward Arnold in the late 30’s and 40’s. Goodman has a great face and was the perfect choice for the role. He’s portly, had jowls, and smiled easily and wonderfully.

Cromwell was first the chauffeur to Dujardin’s Valentin, then later to Bejo’s Peppy Miller. He was always ready to serve and he had the presence necessary for a servant yet he was no mere hired hand. He was more than just a chauffeur because he was loyal – actually so loyal and devoted that it seemed beyond what  could have been expected or believed.

Penelope Ann Miller had the one major role – the embittered wife – that garnered her no sympathy and it was virtually guaranteed that no one would like her. She did her best in what was really drawn as just a narrowly defined character.

Then there was a great dog – a small Jack Russell terrier. He was adorable, but he got too much screen-time. After a point I felt a bit annoyed about seeing him in yet another scene. But he did turn out to be a man’s best friend. On the other hand, it couldn’t have gone any other way in that regard.

And that readers, are all the highlights (Pros) we have for you.

On the flip side of that coin are the Cons:

The story was weak – we’ve seen it before: Singing in the Rain, A Star is Born, and All About Eve, all contributed something to this story. It was predictable. As one star rises, another falls. Someone will hit bottom before they’re saved, and yes, there will be a redemption to close it all out. Check, check, and check. Got ’em all.

The Music became annoying as well as not quite succeeding. I know I was trying my best to not let it intrude.

The film likely did not have a huge budget (the estimate was 12 million)- even Valentin’s home before his  fall, or Peppy Miller’s after she attained stardom were just glimpsed at. We saw elegant exteriors but not much more than one room at a time after that. There was one nice car. But aside from the opening night premier there really wasn’t a lot of glamour to the film.

Finally there’s the question of whether or not  the b&w and the silent film were just gimmicks to get you to watch the film. Yes, I believe so. They did a pretty good job of creating a film that had enough of a curiosity factor to it, for it to look and feel interesting. And because of the way the performers did their roles, I’d have to say that they were pretty darned good. So in total, the film was worth seeing.

But Best Picture of the Year? Not on my ballot – um – my imaginary ballot. It was a gimmicky curiosity, and it was done well, and that’s all you need to say. The clinching argument is this – if another piece of news reaches you and says that there’s another silent film being released shortly – I’m fairly certain that it WON’T generate the same kind of interest, respect, or make you feel that it is award-worthy. Beyond that, my best guess, due to the lack of novelty,  is that hordes of folks will not be rushing out to see it.

As for the rating: I’ll go as high as three point seven five. But no higher. Great acting by the five principals. Over done music – and too much of the cute doggie.  As for the b&w and silent film style – with a better story I could have gone as high as a four.


14 thoughts on “The Artist

  1. No numerical rating? I think you need to be consistent. Either rate all the movies or don’t. Otherwise, an honest, down-to-earth contrary review. Even without seeing it, I felt the story seemed slight, so I’m still not sure what all the buzz is about. Couldn’t get any better fix on this from your review, other than your comment that contemporary critics have a weak spot for period drama.

    I’m still looking for a review that explains/justifies the Best Picture nod by the New York Film Critics. Perhaps, we’ll never know, even if The Artist captures the Oscar. It wouldn’t be the first time I turned off the Academy Awards scratching my head.

  2. So much to argue about here! But I’ll focus on what I think is a misconception — the idea that silent films disappeared because they were somehow “worse” than talking films. I don’t know how many movies you’ve seen from the ca. 1930-32 era, but most of them are terrible — a bunch of people standing around talking, as if they’re on stage. The technology of sound was so tricky that directors basically had to get everyone to stay perfectly still if they wanted to get the voices right. A lot of viewers complained bitterly that Hollywood had made film insufferably boring. (I had a great uncle who always asserted that the silent era was the best for film.)

    So why did they stop making silent film? because studios committed to it as the wave of the future. Because audiences were entranced by the technology, at least at first, and studios believed that’s where they should put their producing dollars. You might as well ask why VHS, the eminently inferior technology, beat out Betamax (the superior) — commercial patterns and corporate money doesn’t always follow the technologically superior or preferable consumer item.

    Now, of course, watching silent film requires using slightly different critical muscles, muscles we’re not used to using anymore. That’s what I think Hazanavicius has achieved so well — to show us the pleasures of seeing film a little bit differently.

  3. If silents went away because of the decisions of the studio chiefs, or because the ticket-buying public flocked to the talkies even if they were crappy movies, or a combination of those and other factors – at the end of the day – the silent films era ended. Or as I wrote in the post:

    But silent films were made, exhibited, and enjoyed. Yet, they went away.

    As for this specific film, I did say it was worth seeing, and that it had praise worthy elements or as you put it: that the Director gave us a film that we would see a bit differently (and he did it so well). I certainly can’t dispute that.

    About the worst comment I made on behalf of the film was that I wouldn’t call it the Best Picture of the Year.

  4. Yet you also say “People prefer to listen rather than read or even imagine” as if this is a given truth, and you compare silent film to current-day subtitled foreign films — a comparison I would hope I could talk you out of, given enough harassment from me!

    You’re not the only one to say it’s a gimmick. Or “pastiche,” which is the sugar-coated version I’ve heard more frequently. I’m going to have to write more extensively about why I don’t think this is the case.

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever seen Guy Maddin’s “Careful”? another hypnotic film that, in his case, draws on German silent/expressionist style. Fascinating.

    • Hi Didion –

      re “people prefer to listen rather than read or even imagine”

      I’m making that statement based upon an opinion, or my idea, not with the cold facts, that an original, foreign film film, made from a wildly successful book, that we both know, did only a fraction of the business, in the United States, than that of the recently released American version of the same title which has been out only 15-16 days.

      The other part that rankles you is the awkward comparison that I made between any subtitled film and silent films. I agree that this isn’t a comparison to be proud of. I am not standing behind that comparison defending it, as I am stating that I wrote it and if I should be taken to task for it, I will have to live with it.

      I do believe it was a curious choice of Hazanavicius. He must have awakened one day and said the world needs a silent film and I have an idea that I can make one . Did the producers agree that this is what the world needed? Or did they see a possibility that it could make money as a novelty or a gimmicky curiosity?

      I do acknowledge that of all the films that get made, most will lose money, or not be profitable theatrically. So there would have to be reasons other than profits about why a film does get produced. Which means that we should not discard ‘gimmicky curiosity’ or novelty out of hand. I will look forward to reading your more extensive report on this particular aspect of The Artist.

      I also wonder why The Artist did end with spoken words that we did hear.

      I’ve not seen “Careful”.

  5. I wonder if The Artist is making money? How does one find out about that, anyway?

    Aha: just answered my own question using IMDB. Yes, it’s making money — even just with the French returns it’s paid for its own ca. $12million budget.

    I’ll have to write more about why I think it’s not a gimmick…my list of future posts keeps growing, thanks to these provocative conversations here at your place. Not for everyone, obvs, as it wasn’t a movie that sang to you. Will say more soon.

    I do think that silent film seems more problematic in theory than it is in practice. I’d only send you to something like Harold Lloyd’s films Speedy and Safety Last, or the breathtaking 1927 film Sunrise (which inspired Hazanavicius), to have you see that it can touch you in a way you didn’t know about. It’s not “hard” the way reading a bunch of subtitles for a talky foreign film can be. And the best ones aren’t over-acted or ridiculous. Silent film can tap into a part of your soul — when it’s done beautifully. I think Hazanavicius did this because he loves, loves, loves silent/classic film and wants to share his love with the rest of us.

  6. Thanks for your review, especially the inclusion of both the pros and the cons (lately I’ve only read reviews that sing The Artist’s praises). Thanks for the honest approach and the historical perspective as well. I’m really looking forward to seeing the film!

    • Hi psychcine – thanks for the comment and the interest.

      Somehow I think I’m in a minority in not praising this one as the best thing since sliced bread, microwaves, and non-stick pans.

      I also appreciate that you signed up and am now following my blog. Thanks again.


  7. Hey Mike, I actually really admire your argument regarding The Artist’s novelty factor, and I have a few things to say about it, so here goes…

    You have a fair point – the story is weak, and yes, it would seem like choosing to bleach the film of colour and make it silent could be perceived as a money making tactic or general viewing incentive, but I don’t think that is the case with Hazanavicius (not that I’m claiming to know him).
    It’s not like he’s created a modern everyday film and specifically opted for Black & White + silence to make it appear interesting. He’s created that type of film because it is a love letter homage to primitive cinema. How it all began.

    I don’t think it’s right to question the motive behind someone elses idea, but if we were, I think the inception of The Artist has stemmed from genuine interest. I didn’t think of as a concept, I thought of it as a passion. A ‘Thank You’ to why we have movies in the first place, kind of like Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ I suppose.
    The question will obviously always remain, even if we were told the truth, scepticism is a nagging bitch. In the back of (some) peoples minds, one might be thinking he thought – “What sort of film can I create that will bring in tons of money?”. But surely, in reality it would be the opposite? – being fully aware that amongst our world of many colours and sounds, creating such a film would in fact, not generate lots of money. At first impression, people are going to be confused, and then label and dismiss it ancient, uninteresting etc. People are arrogant, it’s a fact, but curiosity often gets the better of us.
    I actually think that The Artist is a bold move; it’s easy to follow along with progression and the latest technologies or whatnot, but when asked to take a step back, to digress, we are naturally ignorant and dismissive.

    No, the story isn’t incredibly deep or complex, but it also isn’t just a story, it is an interpretation of our story, of how cinema changed, and it works, was really enjoyable and easy to understand. That’s the important to remember about The Artist.

    I also admire your point about it not being worthy of winning Best Picture. Strip away the Black & White, ignore the sound, in the core we’re left with the story, dialogue and the characters emotions and expressions. It all depends on what you classify as Best Picture. To me The Artist, as well as a few others in the Best Picture category, tick all the boxes. It was well acted, I loved the characters, the screenplay was clean, funny and concise, I absolutely loved the soundtrack and I came out of the cinema feeling really happy after watching it. I just thought it was classic, timeless.

  8. Thanks for the comments Matt – I do the reviews and hopefully folks will disagree with my observations or have contrary perspectives that they are willing put out there and share.

    I must agree with your premise that The Artist, beside anything that we may choose to label it, is, at its heart – a love letter or homage to the earliest days of film making. Certainly, The Artist doesn’t take us as far back as Scorsese’s Hugo did, but it is a look back.

    You also made one point that I didn’t – and it was your last seven words.

    “I just thought it was classic, timeless.”

    My definitive statement – that I didn’t see The Artist as The Best Picture is not nearly as refined a statement as calling the film classic and timeless. But from any perspective – a film could be classic and timeless and NOT be The Best Picture of the year. On this we must agree – because surely we cannot say that The Artist and The Artist alone is classic and timeless and the other contenders are not.

    So we can agree to disagree. And as we have discovered since yesterday when the nominations were announced – that this Oscar season is filled with disagreements.

  9. Oh of course, a classic and timeless film doesn’t automatically equal Best Picture’. Plus yeah, majority of the films on the list are actually pretty timeless.

    I guess my emphasis was on the fact that because its Black & White + silent, and due to the nature of the story – it has a transcending likeability about it. It’s simplicity, humour and emotion make it will appealing to everyone on some level.

    Funnily enough, my only disagreement with this years Oscar is Drive not being nominated for Best Original Score – everything else I agree with.

  10. I finally saw The Artist on DVD yesterday. I liked it quite a lot, but it was not a powerful experience for me, either on an emotional, intellectual, or cinematic level.

    I enjoyed the music and dancing and the passionate homage and reverent recreation of the magic of silent movies. But, I expect more than a toe tap and a chuckle from a movie. I’m the guy who pries apart the roll and asks “where’s the beef?” I like a film that gives me something to chew on.

    Comparing it to the difficult to digest rival best picture nominee, The Tree of Life, The Artist was a cleverly saccharine confection that left me starved for nutrition.
    As JMM frequently points out, movie reviews reflect individual tastes, not universal truths. For me, The Tree of Life tasted rich and heavy — very much of an adult movie about childhood. In contrast, The Artist tasted light and fluffy, a childlike movie about adults.

    Both are stunning, unexpected, audience-be damned, auteur movies, but as in quantum physics, the observer changes the result. A movie works differently, depending on who is watching it.

    • Thanks for the comment FD –

      I really liked your twin comparative sentences –
      For me, The Tree of Life tasted rich and heavy — very much of an adult movie about childhood. In contrast, The Artist tasted light and fluffy, a childlike movie about adults.

      I guess the whole thing comes down to a question that we really can’t quantify except by looking at the results of of a poll of a certain small sample (out of the millions who see films) that is – the result of the Oscars.

      What was the question: “How good is it?”

      On the other hand – while I didn’t think that The Artist was the best picture ever, much less the Best Film of the Year (Oscar), I did like it far better then The Tree of Life.

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