When you walk into your local multiplex, there are a few guarantees you can expect from whatever movie is about to unspool before you. There will certainly be color, the actors will dialogue with each other, and you will have that widescreen movie theater experience. The Artist is a unique experience in itself because it flouts all of these conventions and due to being under the Weinstein Company banner and thus heralded as the next Best Picture of the Year by the Academy Awards, it gets released in suburban areas where this type of film would ordinarily never see the light of day.
I can’t tell you how odd it was sitting in a neighborhood theater filled with the usual assortment of suburbanites watching a film in 1.33:1 aspect ratio with the only sound, for the most part, being the Oscar nominated musical score by Ludovic Bource. As a cinephile, I’ve been to repertory theaters and other such screenings of silent films but in this specific environment, it was at the same time thrilling and mortifying. I cannot vouch for the rest of the country but the theater I saw the film with seemed very cool towards it. One could almost hear a pin drop as me and another older gentleman towards the back were laughing and reacting to all the right parts. It was strange trying to gauge the audience’s reaction to the movie as the film itself is very eager to please. The actors charm is infectious but this is really an ode to a time long gone. It’s a cinematic tribute to its own form and it’s hard to say how those who haven’t already in love with the form would go for it. I had a great time with it but did those around me enjoy it as much? It’s hard to say but the silence was loud and clear about it.
However, in the end, The Artist may be a film that I ultimately admire more than I really love and enjoy. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its entertainment value. In fact, the film churns through emotional turnovers, dance numbers, and romantic turmoil with relative ease through its swift hour and a half running time. But the film feels somewhat empty of any real thematic content. The film follows silent film star George Valentin played with effortless charm by Jean Dujardin. When the film opens, he’s at the top of his profession. Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an aspiring actress and devoted fan of Valentin’s, who is quickly touted as the next big thing when the studios start moving towards sound pictures. Valentin, unable to adapt to this new way of filmmaking due to pride and arrogance, throws away the rest of his money into one big silent picture that ultimately bombs as Peppy Miller is just releasing a brand new sound picture to massive success.
There is little originality here with different story points and character flourishes taken from the wide spectrum of movie history. It is evident that much of this flattery of the form, taken as homage to the great silver screen but there is very little that director Michel Hazanavicius brings that takes the film to that next level. It’s a wonderful imitation of a film from that specific era with all of the great performances, gags, and moving dramatic moments that one would see from those films. But that’s all any of it feels like, an imitation. Similar in the way a comedic imitation of a famous figure is not necessarily a great performance of a role, there’s no real soul to the picture.
Much of the charm and heart of the picture comes from its two leads, Dujardin and Bejo. They have an electric chemistry together that is delightful to watch in their scenes together. They both radiate a kind of movie star charisma that seems so effortless and charmed. It enraptures the audience and draws them in. Dujardin delivers a terrific performance that is half mugging for the camera and half a real, truly felt performance, especially during the second half when Valentin is at his lowest point. These portions drag on a bit and pull the film down somewhat, coming off as slightly repetitive. It’s Valentin’s pride that contributes to his downfall and Hazanavicius never fails to remind the audience of that throughout. Beyond that, little is done with these central themes of pride and Hollywood celebrity. It feels more like a something to hang the rest of the silent film aesthetic on rather than any meaningful exploration of said themes.
There are numerous cameos from American actors throughout this French production, as if the film itself wasn’t deferential enough to Hollywood. John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Anne Miller, and others show up throughout in roles varying from decent to downright puzzling. Malcolm MacDowell appears for a strange thirty second cameo in which his primary role seems to be sitting in a chair and clapping.
Another aspect that I found a bit odd is in the film’s use of sound. There are two scenes in the film in which the use of sound is used to great effect. One, in a dream as Valentin is slowly being pushed out of the limelight due to the coming advances in sound technology. The second comes towards the end as the film world fully transitions over to sound. Strangely, there are one or two scenes in which we see a sound film being played and yet, as the characters watch and react, the film remains silent. I found this an odd choice as we never get a good sense of why Valentin rejects the idea so briskly. Perhaps if we had heard the sound test in which he first hears it or get a sense of what the audience is hearing, we would have a better idea. It seemed a strange choice as with those two scenes mentioned above, Hazanavicius is not shy about keeping his silent film completely sound free.
Despite its faults, The Artist is still a delightful film as far as it goes. It’s a fittingly loving tribute to a bygone era. It’s a fun novelty for those who truly love film and gives great insight into early silent cinema. For those new to the form, it’s a nice entry point as it provides a kind of greatest hits package of all the things that made silent films so wonderful. There’s slapstick, romance, melodrama, and even a little dashing action. It’s at times touching and heartbreaking but it never really reaches for any great ambition but it never really seems to want to either. The novelty of a silent film in the modern age is ambition enough.