The Artist (2011) Movie Review

Disclosure #1: I watched The Artist for the first time in the middle of a 14-hour trans-Pacific flight. I didn’t even have an aisle seat. Not the best conditions for enjoying quality film, but do not be mistaken–The Artist is certainly a quality film.

Of course, the Oscars have come and gone, and The Artist won basically everything. Naturally, the usual backlash against the film occurred before the ceremonies were even over.

Disclosure #2: I wasn’t rooting for The Artist. My personal favorites were Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life, but the French tribute to silent film was a shoo-in. Now having seen the film (finally!), it’s clear to me why it won. Not that I have anything against horses or baseball.

Much has been said about the sound–or lack thereof–in The Artist. As a silent film about silent film, the choice of background music and sound effects shines through each chiaroscuro scene.

Let’s start with the good: I liked the film, genuinely enjoyed it. The story pulled at my heartstrings. Shots were framed beautifully. Director (and newly minted Academy Award winner) Michel Hazanavicius effortlessly managed to convey smoothly fluid, languid scenes, as well as classically jerky, stop-start-stop scenes familiar to any silent film devotee.  César-winning Best Actress Bérénice Bejo was delightful and fresh. Uggie the dog was adorable.

Jean Jujardin won an Oscar for his performance as George Valentin, a silent film leading man who falls from the height of stardom due to the invention of “talkies.” I didn’t dislike his performance. Purely judging on an acting level, the man portrayed his character remarkably well. The maudlin drooping of eyes to ground, the cheesy grins and smooth sashays–he did it all, and believably so.

However, the script worked against him, in so far as it painted his character into both a tribute and a relic of the silent era. Yes, on a meta level, we can see Valentin as not only a literal representative of silent film in the world within the film, but also Jujardin’s portrayal of Valentin as a character representative of silent film for us, the viewers of The Artist. Contrast George Valentin’s overdrawn emotions with the light, sparkly antics of Bejo’s Peppy Miller. The Artist is smart, but sometimes the film’s intelligence gets in the way of entertainment value.

Frankly, I found the protagonist insufferable. Hazanavicius’s screenplay followed the archetypal arc of the tragic hero. A man is vaunted to brilliant heights, and then the audience watches him fall, as a result of his hubris and the laws of nature (well, for the Greeks, the Gods). Modern audiences need more than a morality play, though. We look for heroes that rise and fall, but learn something, and–this is key–change.

After his fall from stardom, Valentin wallows in his own disgrace for an overly lengthy second act that repeats its themes over and over. The man is sad. The man is angry. The man is a depressed, alcoholic failure who hates himself and everyone around him. Jujardin conveys this all, with both the broad strokes necessary for a walking metaphor, and the subtlety of small shifts in pose and glances backwards. But it goes on for far too long.

Again and again, Valentin rejects the help of well-meaning people, and succumbs to that sin that kills so many: pride. It is a classic conflict. The film as a whole is deeply-layered, with facets of not only film archetypes, but narrative norms that we know by heart. However, I emphasize again that sometimes, that’s not enough.

For a film about film, you’d expect entertainment. At the very least, we do get a rushing climax and a somewhat disjointed happy ending. Does it work? On one hand, the critic and scholar in me sniffs disdainfully at the rushed happy ending, the convenient timing of “Bang!”

On the other hand, perhaps sometimes, we–as audience members–think too much as well. If filmmakers must not only provide thought but also entertain, audience members too much not only think, but allow themselves to be entertained. The second act was long (especially the second half). The main character was irritating. But, by the climax of the film, all I could think was, “I don’t even care. Just give me the happy ending. Please.”

Regardless of any external opinions on what I was watching, I was drawn into the moment of the movie. I was pulled in to care about the characters, to root for the hero, to rail against a society that conspired against him. Without meaning to do so, I suspended disbelief.

At the end of the day, isn’t that why we still go to movie theaters? We can watch films at home now, easily. We can watch films on our cell phones, on laptops, in the middle seat of a 757. But nothing beats walking into an air-conditioned room, and gripping the armrests in a theater. When the lights dim, and the chattering stops, all you can see is the movie.

I am reminded often of the iconic scene in Vivre Sa Vie, when Anna Karina (playing a woman who has lost control of her life), sits in a theater, tears streaming down her face, as the silent film Jean d’Arc flashes across the big screen. Films affect us, yes, but they also empty us. The let us clear our minds of the emotions and thoughts we suppress in the day. We go to films to escape reality, for at least 90 minutes or so.

Disclosure #3: As much as I didn’t appreciate certain parts of The Artist, I have to admit that it drew me in. I delighted in the dancing, I pined for the slow-burning love story, I wanted George Valentin to succeed.

Did it work, then? Bien sur.

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