Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first: The Artist did not deserve to win Best Picture; not in a field that included standout movies like Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and The Descendants, and certainly not in a year with my personal favorites Meek’s Cutoff, Of Gods and Men, and Drive. This doesn’t, of course, mean that The Artist is a bad movie, but it does make Michel Hazanavicius’ little tribute to the glories of silent cinema easier to hate. And that can be the real shame of the Oscars – rather than promoting goodwill and good faith among ranking cinephiles, the Academy’s shameless acceptance of studio marketing campaigns and cronyism has replaced the act of critical judgment. Well, maybe “replace” is the wrong word to use here, because I’m not sure if critical judgment has ever been the watchword among Oscar voters.
If The Artist is easy to hate because it won an award that it surely did not deserve, then it is doubly easy to hate because it (or the filmmakers behind it) want so badly for you to like it. Almost cloying in its efforts for your affection, The Artist has the sweet flavor of cotton candy. A little too much and the stomach begins to turn.
We have established now that The Artist is very easy to disdain. We may also establish that this easy-hate quality is especially true for cinephiles, who, naturally, hate the Oscars (or at least the part of the Oscars that portends to speak for the quality of each year’s American movies) and also tend to spit on any movie that dares you to like it. Even worse for the cinephile, The Artist is a movie about the very thing they love – movies. And, to go one step further, there is no cynicism in The Artist. Where most “movie” movies carry the card of a sneering insider’s critical eye (see Sunset Blvd., Adaptation., The Player, A Star is Born, The Bad and the Beautiful, et al.), The Artist is an unashamed love letter to the silent cinema and even to the production modes that birthed it. The Artist cherishes all of its characters and throws no one to the curb. Imagine if you will: its director took the project on simply because he wanted to make a silent movie.
So, yes, after over a century of Hollywood greed, opportunism, and intentional mediocrity, it can be a bitter pill to swallow that tells the aged and knowledgeable cinephile that there is something to love about Tinseltown and its checkered history.
And here’s the real shame of The Artist and all the hype-backlash-hype that surrounds it: The Artist, begging for your affection, actually deserves it; if not in the measures granted by a Best Picture statue, at least in the small measure of our appreciation. Sweet, charitable movies of any genre (least of all the Hollywood meta-movie) are rare today, and we should be grateful that there are people out there who love movies enough to get up on a rooftop and shout it to the world. Quentin Tarantino aside, of course.
By now you probably already know that The Artist doesn’t offer anything new in terms of story. It’s nothing more than a classical, predictable hero arc, in which the unfairly handsome George Valentine loses his movie star status when the talkies come to town and, after the requisite period of trial and obstacle, regains said status through the help of a friend. If you’re looking for a good yarn, you’ll yawn your way through The Artist. Set the story aside. It’s not worth the worry.
If there is no story, we should at least expect some critical insight into the period, right? Again, this does not seem to concern Hazanavicius. So much of The Artist’s historical-critical insight (if you can even call it that) is lifted directly from the playful design of Singin’ in the Rain and the troubled downfall of the silent actor from Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond that it’s barely worth mentioning. If you want critical insight, just watch those two movies. At best, The Artist carries the reminder that technological change does not respect the past and that movie stardom (or fame of any kind) is fleeting and dependent on many uncontrollable factors. Not exactly revelatory ideas, and they aren’t exactly dealt with in any detail either.
Remember, Hanavisicous didn’t want to tell us a new story or critique history; he wanted to make a silent movie, which is (almost) what he did.
Now, to be clear, just being a silent movie would never be enough; there are plenty of great silent movies from the silent era available to us. One could easily reason that skipping The Artist in favor of watching Sunrise, The Cameraman, The Crowd, or The Passion of Joan of Arc is the path of a wise person. The logical fallacy in this reasoning, even if there is some truth to it, should be plain to us, though: the existence of great movies from the past should not keep us from exploring the movies of today. And The Artist, incidentally, has less in common with Sunrise than it does with Swing Time or the aforementioned Singin’ in the Rain. While Hazanvicius might have intended only to make a silent movie, The Artist is plainly the work of someone living in the sound era. You will never mistake it for anything made before 1927.
The Artist, then, exists at the crossroads where silent and sound cinemas meet. It mixes formal elements from both eras with ease, and it is in this playful experimentation that The Artist is worthy of our attention.
In the film’s most stunning scene George Valentine has just learned of his studio’s intention to switch to an all-talkie slate. He, like so many silent stars, doesn’t want to talk; he is content to please his many fans by mugging the camera with his shit-eating grin. Charm is Valentine’s stock in trade and he is reasonably afraid that opening his mouth might break the spell. In a state of internal torment, Valentine sits in his dressing room staring into the mirror, silent, as the current cinema demands. He picks up a glass and sets it down. Clink. This small sound, brought fourth by a foley artist from the future, shocks the actor out of his self-pitying trance. He tests other items and finds the same handiwork of the foley artist. Valentine sees the future, a world in which every item has a distracting aural component. And yet Valentine’s voice remains trapped in the cinema of yesteryear, unable to speak. It turns out to be a fever dream, a nightmare.
Up to this point, and well beyond, The Artist luxuriates in the joys of silent cinema: the movement of the body in a lovely dance sequence where Valentine meets his romantic foil, Peppy Miller, for the second time; a glorious romantic reverie in which Peppy Miller, alone in Valentine’s dressing room, woos Valentine’s tuxedo; and, what is probably the film’s sweetest moment, a scene in which Valentine and Peppy, shooting a movie together, fall in love in front of the camera with each new take. Hazanvicius charms us with the silent camera and reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that the absence of sound sometimes forced filmmakers into creating images of almost unmatched power and purity. The clinking of a glass would only wreck these moments.
But back to the nightmare sequence, which is one of the few to include sound effects (the movie is scored, appropriately). Though no other moment in The Artist compares to it for sheer thrills, we should also look to as the center of the film, a scene that informs everything else in the movie, encapsulating the fears and joys of those few years in which silent and sound cinemas coexisted uneasily. When all the charm and cleverness fades away, this is the closest that Hazanavicious comes to illuminating the historical period that The Artist covers. It might not be much but it is wonderful.
And if that isn’t enough for you, there’s always Valentine’s grin.
So, if you plan on seeing The Artist, I advise you to set aside your coolness for just ninety minutes. It might be one of the most derivative movies around, but it’s also an act of genuine love. Plan on being charmed to death; let your guard down. You never know–you might just enjoy yourself.