[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2011 New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]
While I watched The Artist, I found my thoughts constantly being drawn to the film Singing in the Rain. Superficially, I will admit that it’s a comparison that makes absolutely no sense. The Artist is silent, black-and-white and Singing in the Rain is the exact opposite, but beyond that the two films have quite a lot in common. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing (I love Singing in the Rain), but I can’t help feeling at least a little bit disappointed by The Artist.
I went into the film completely blind, but I rapidly developed (completely unfair) expectations due to its immediate similarities with Singing in the Rain. Unfortunately, The Artist didn’t live up to them. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great film (it is), but perhaps a twenty-first century silent film can only go so far.
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Release Date: 11/25/11
The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the most beloved silent film actor of his time. His time, by the way, is 1927, when silent films are still all the rage. After the showing of his latest hit, becomes entangled with an extra named Peppy Miller accidentally finds herself on the red carpet standing right next to him. Caught in the moment, she kisses him on the cheek as the media goes wild. Unfortunately for George, times change. Talkies become all the rage, and the old meat is pushed out for newer, fresher stuff. Stuff like Ms. Miller, who becomes a star while Dujardin drops from entirely from the public eye.
And that is all I will tell you. What makes the story work is not the overall premise (which I found to be very Singing in the Rain-esque, despite the obvious differences) but the details. What happens that bring the characters up and down is really what makes the story enjoyable. The film takes opens up in 1927, spends some time in 1929, and finishes in 1931, and I appreciated the passage of time. It allows The Artist to explore the fall of George Valentin in a way that a more condensed period of time could not. This film, much like 50/50 (which The Artist is nothing like), is a perfect example of a dramedy. The comedy almost always hits a very high note (and I laughed out loud frequently, much more than the other uptight, fun-hating writers at the screening), and when the film gets dramatic… well, it succeeds there too.
The film’s visual nostalgia is a big part of this. Shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and featuring no color or diagetic sound,* the film brings back waves of nonexistent memories of paying a dime to get into movies theaters and playing with actual friends instead of virtual ones. I have no inherent problem with any of these artistic choices, but I do think the lack of sound* was a mistake. While some scenes benefited greatly from the silence* (basically any that involved a barking dog), there were many more that seemed to falter ever so slightly due to it. The musical score does everything it can to make up for this shortcoming (and the soundtrack is absolutely excellent), but I didn’t feel that it was entirely successful.
At the same time, I am conflicted. The moments that make the asterisks necessary are truly wonderful (and hilarious), but I don’t know that they justify the problems inherent to silence. I think the implication there is clear, but I have no intention of spoiling anything for anybody. I will only say that my Singing in the Rain comparison becomes a bit easier to swallow as the film progresses, despite the fact that no one ever breaks into song or color.
Visually, The Artist is quite a treat. There weren’t any moments that made me feel like I was watching a film made by a cinematic master, but it was still well shot. What makes the it stand out, however, is its throw-back style. Black-and-white filmmaking is entirely underutilized in modern cinema, and The Artist does a great job with it. Along with that, the use of the Full Screen format was something I thought was excellently done. Even though this film had only slightly more than half the visual real estate of an average film, I never found myself missing the extra space. I wouldn’t say I want more films to revert to the olden-day aspect ratio, but director Michel Hazanavicius used it to great effect. In fact, for the first time, I feel kind of bad cropping/resizing the images for a review.
Judging the acting is a bit difficult given everyone’s silence. I don’t think that silent performances can be as good as voiced ones, at least not ones that are forced into silence. You may disagree, but I would point you to the fact that a large portion of the most well-known silent actors (Chaplin, Chaney, Keaton) are remembered more for their physicality than their actual acting. There are absolutely some incredible silent performances (Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, for example), but much is lost in the silence, and I think that’s the case with The Artist. There is a lot of physical over-dramatization, which is kind of required by the film’s premise, but even the more subtle notes just didn’t quite do it for me. Dujardin did a very good job and so did the rest of the cast, but no performances were truly spectacular. Except for the dog, which was amazing and should win an Academy Award for its performance.
As far as casting goes, my only real issue is with the casting of John Goodman. He’s an amazing actor, and he played the part well. The problem is that I am an American without much knowledge of modern French cinema, so his was the only face I recognized throughout, and I felt that The Artist lost a bit of its magic every time he appeared on screen. The film works best when it convinces you that it’s a part of the time period that it portrays, and John Goodman’s role in it serves as a constant reminder that it’s not.
Despite my qualms and disappointments, I really did love The Artist. I left the theater with a smile on my face, and I was very happy to have seen it. There’s been a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding this movie, and given that it’s a period piece about Hollywood… well, it’s not hard to see why. Should you believe the hype? Yes and no. It truly is a great movie, but it’s not Best Picture material (then again, neither was The King’s Speech). Regardless, I can easily recommend this film, especially if you are a fan of film history. It’s dramatic, funny, nostalgic, and I think that it may be as well put together as any new silent film could be. It may not Singing in the Rain, but you really can’t go wrong with this one.