Review: The Artist

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The Artist is a lot of fun, but is it a great film, as judged by the many critic’s awards it’s been winning? Opinions will differ. I consider it more a pastiche, or a valentine, for the silent film-era, and is about as deep as a strip of celluloid. It’s richly entertaining, but made of gossamer.

We’ve been reading how unlikely it must have seemed that a French, black and white, silent film would score with audiences. Well, since it’s silent, it’s Frenchness doesn’t matter at all, and it isn’t truly a silent film at all, in that there is synchronized sound and special use of voices and sound effects where needed. Surely it will mean more to those who recognize the tips of the hat to the films A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and even Citizen Kane (look for a dinner table scene that is almost a perfect match from that film).

The story is wafer-thin: Jean Dujardin is George Valentin (only one letter away from the great silent film star, Valentino) a huge silent film star. At his latest premiere, he meets cute Berenice Bejo, who is an extra. They have a spark of kismet, but Dujardin is married to the sour Penelope Ann Miller. She hates him–why we don’t know, since he is never less than charming–to the point where she defaces every image of him she can find. Maybe he’s more devoted to his Jack Russell terrier, who performs with him. An R-rated version of this film might have been interesting.

Anyway, Bejo gets a job as an extra on Dujardin’s latest film, and during a dancing scene they fall in love, although it is unrequited. She slips into his dressing room and caresses his overcoat, a bit lifted from Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, but still lovingly done. The tide is about to turn, though, as studio boss John Goodman shows Dujardin the new-fangled “talkie” technology. Dujardin is adamant that people don’t want to see him speak, and so as silent films fade, so does his stardom, while Bejo becomes a big star.

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is clever and looks great. The very first title card is “I won’t talk!,” and the closing bit of dialogue, well, I won’t spoil that. The aspect ratio is the old-fashioned 1:33, and the camera speed, while not the common 16 fps of silent days, is 22 fps, off a bit from the modern 24 fps. I read an article where Hazanavicius points out that if nothing else, those two frames per second cuts eight percent of the running time. The photography, by Guillaume Schiffman, is magnificent, as is the music score by Ludovic Bource, and the costumes, by Mark Bridges (who was a college classmate of mine).

The performances by Dujardin and Bejo are also a joy. Dujardin, as a man of the past, favors the mugging style of silent films, while Bejo has the additional level of playing a woman who acts in talkies while being in a silent film, but she’s terrific. But Uggie, as the Jack Russell, steals the show, especially in a great scene worthy of Rin Tin Tin when he retrieves a bewildered policeman.

For those who thinks an old movie is early Spielberg, the charms of The Artist may well be lost, but those who remember watching the black and white classics on the midnight movie should feel a glow of nostalgia. The production design captures the glamor of the era, down to the gaudy Hollywood mansions to the movie magazines. I liked The Artist a great deal, but it just isn’t deep or substantial enough to warrant “best of the year” accolades. It’s a novelty, albeit an expertly done one.

My grade for The Artist: B+

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. Saw this last night and pretty much agree with JS. Very nicely done, a good old-fashioned crowd-pleaser with two charming lead performances. But it doesn’t add up to very much.

    A few things stood out about it. I watched it in a packed cinema and that really added to the atmosphere, as would be the case with most silent movies. I think this would play far less well watching at home alone on DVD.

    I thought John Goodman’s character was a weakness in the film. Firstly, because I don’t think the usually reliable Goodman handled the style required for the film particularly well – what should’ve been a plum role rather fizzled. Also, I was rather puzzled by his character’s function in the film. He seemed to be an old-style Louis B Mayer-type studio mogul and yet at times on the movie set he seemed to be in the role of the director (which moguls never were afaik).

    On the other hand, I thought James Cromwell was very good – wish his character had been in the film more.

    Thought the insertion of words on the soundtrack and right at the end with dialogue was a mistake – wish they’d stuck to being a totally silent film right to the end.

    Overall, impossible to dislike and enjoyable, but no classic. Rating: B

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