Friday, January 20, 2012

Silent Treatment: THE ARTIST


The hardest part of finding yourself less than completely bowled over by a film that has been nearly universally loved is resisting the temptation to impugn the intelligence or the motives of those singing praises. In fact, when I walked out of The Artist, a French tribute to silent Hollywood filmmaking, I found myself grumbling that it was a silent movie for people who’ve never seen a silent movie. I recognize that’s entirely unfair of me. After all, plenty of learned critics (including some of my favorites like Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott and Stephanie Zacharek) loved it and they’ve seen more than a silent film or two in their lives.

But my grumbling hyperbole, directed at a movie I did indeed enjoy, mind you, got at something really hollow at the film’s core. I don’t doubt that writer-director Michel Hazanavicius loves classic Hollywood filmmaking. Nor do I think that this well intentioned and undeniably fun movie is anything but what he intended. It’s a gimmick, a silly little filmmaking exercise that happens to have some charismatic performances and a good-natured sense of cinematic play.  But it sure isn’t anything more than that.

Some of us first came to know about Hazanavicius with his OSS 117 spoof films, the first, Cairo, Nest of Spies, arriving on our shores in 2008, with the second, Lost in Rio, following two years later. These were based on a French spy character that predates and, in some ways, set the formula for James Bond. Transposing him into a post-Roger Moore, post-Austin Powers cinematic landscape while setting the films in post-World War II, Hazanavicius wiggled around irrelevance ever so slightly, though the finished product is undoubtedly touched by it. As the agent, Jean Dujardin plays straight-faced sexism, ethnocentrism and casual disregard for the well being of anyone but himself and his mission with a charming physical grace and a winning smile. These are loose goofs, but they’re thin and silly in just the right lazy proportions.

The gimmick of The Artist is that it’s not just a tribute to Hollywood silent filmmaking set in the 1920s. It is a silent movie, a black and white, Academy Ratio, silent movie. And that’s cute. This self-reflexive film stars Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent film star who’s a kind of Gallic Don Lockwood. He’s a huge star who bumps into perky Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) at a premiere. She’s just a fan with a crush looking for an autograph, but the next day she steps out of a lineup of potential extras and proves her worth with some nice tap-dancing moves. Soon she’s moving into bit parts, which turn into supporting roles and finally deposit her as a shimmering star in the Hollywood firmament.

Her rise is juxtaposed with Valentin’s fall as talkies rush in. He refuses to adapt. No one wants to hear him talk anyways. But that Peppy! People would watch and listen her do just about anything. The camera absolutely loves Bérénice Bejo. She’s a beauty, yes, but that’s not the whole story. She has a rare quality that draws attention without upstaging her character. She sparkles on screen in a way that makes her just plain likable. And Dujardin, for his credit, is a fine screen presence with a nice silhouette and good physical expressiveness. He’s a believable silent star. But Bejo’s a natural, much like John Goodman and Missi Pyle who are so funny and charming in bit roles as a studio head and a spurned starlet that I would have greatly preferred a film focusing on them.

There are two astonishingly beautiful moments of cinematic delight to be found in The Artist. One involves a startling, strategically isolated use of sound effects. The other, a sweet little evocative moment of displaced romance as Bejo slips an arm through Dujardin’s empty coat hanging on a rack and embraces herself in a fantasy-tinged longing caress. These two simple, effective moments are the kinds of expressive invention that actual silent films could achieve. But The Artist doesn’t stay on that plane of existence, instead settling into cheap imitation. It doesn’t use its gimmick for anything more than placing quotes around old-timey and trotting out an “ain’t we cute” attitude. And, yeah, it’s cute. But it’s also exasperating.

I love silent film as much as I love the talkies Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or Singin’ in the Rain, other great films that Hazanavicius apes here. (There are also hints of Rebecca and Sunset Blvd, the work of Frank Borzage and the more realistic films of F.W. Murnau wafting throughout). It’s a hodgepodge of intermittently anachronistic classic film references and it’s a sloppy homage to Hays Code Hollywood throughout. Even that’s punctured in the early moment when Missi Pyle flips the bird at Dujardin. The sharp black and white cinematography from Guillaum Schiffman and the production design by Laurence Bennet isn’t quite Hollywood classicism but it’s similar enough that if you squint a little it’s mostly indistinguishable from the real thing.

It’s a frustrating film that uses the charms of its cast and the novelty of its construction to coast on charm alone. At least Hazanavicius is aware that silent film is more than the reductive concept that exists in some ignorant corners of the popular imagination, a view of scratchy prints with dinky music and endless intertitles. He clearly loves cinema and knows better, which is why it’s so frustrating. This fairly short charmer of a film grows endless and when the charm wears off there’s nothing much left to care about. 

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