Review: 'The Artist' offers simple pleasures in a look back at Hollywood's origins
"The Artist" is, as you may have heard by now, a black-and-white movie that is, for the most part, silent. It is set during the era when the silent films were replaced by talking pictures. It is a crowd-pleaser, and since its premiere at Cannes this summer, it's been getting warm and enthusiastic reviews.
I was onboard since before the film started screening based purely on the creative team involved. Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin collaborated on both "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies" and "OSS 117 - Lost In Rio," which are these lovely silly French riffs on spy movies from the '60s, with Dujardin looking like someone put Bond-era Connery and Patrick Warburton in the Brundlechamber. Those films both delight me, start to finish, and the idea of those two guys paying tribute to silent cinema sounded like pure win as far as I was concerned.
Now, a day later, I'm trying to figure out why I don't love the movie the way so many others seem to. People are ecstatic over it, swoony in love with it, and I thought it was, at best, a nice diversion, a sweet but overly simple piece that won't have nearly the rematch value for me as their earlier films together. I think Dujardin is very charming in it, I think Berenice Bejo is a pleasure to watch in the film, and I like the work Hazanavicius does as a director. It's very skilled in a lot of ways. But the storyline here is threadbare, a few sketched ideas instead of a finished work, and I can't help but feel that they never really figured out why to make this movie aside from the obvious exercise in homage.
And, yes, I know I just said I love both of the "OSS 117" movies, which are equally driven by homage, and I know that sounds hypocritical, but all I can say is one works and one doesn't for me. Within the basic idea that we're going to see something that looks very early '60s with Dujardin as a clueless spy, there are any number of directions things can go, and the films are loose and funny and inventive, and take you to some really bizarre and ridiculous places. "The Artist," on the other hand, is a very linear ride. Guy Valentin (Dujardin) is a giant movie star in the silent era. Sound is invented. He's ruined overnight. He mopes. He gets a bounce. The end. If this were a silent comedy by someone like Keaton or Chaplin, the idea that he is ruined by the invention of sound would be a two or three minute set-up, and then each sequence would be an elaborate comedy set-piece built around him trying to redefine himself after leaving the film business. That's what silent films did so well… they would take one idea and then really milk it for all the material they could. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But there was an inventive spirit to many of the best silent comedy filmmakers that I don't think "The Artist" really captures in any significant way.
I do think that's the goal, though. The film is definitely the most gentle of the films they've made together, with Dujardin smiling a lot in place of actual jokes. He defers to a cute Jack Russell terrier for much of the film, and I was surprised how passive he is about his fate. He's so loosely defined as a character that I'm not really sure why I was supposed to be invested in what happens to him. Berenice Bejo, the female lead, is far more appealing overall as Peppy Miller, a girl who get her break in one of Valentin's last silent films only to become one of the first major stars of the sound era. What's weird is how the sound films she stars in look exactly like the silent films of Valentin's era, and yet the film wants us to believe that the audience would just instantly reject the older films. There have been so many films that have dealt with the ideas that are in this movie, and with more punch, that I'm not sure what the appeal is here. It's frustrating, because I kept waiting for the film to get its hooks in me. I couldn't have been more open to it overall.
In the end, "The Artist" feels to me like a nod to the idea of silent cinema, but I don't think it recreates the language or the energy of silent films very well, and when you're doing homage like this, part of the goal is getting everything right. Look at the heyday of Mel Brooks when he made "Young Frankenstein" or "Blazing Saddles" or "High Anxiety." He went out of his way to get everything right, and it just made it funnier. Here, I feel like Hazanavicius wanted to indulge a certain fetish, and he loves both Dujardin and his wife, Bejo, but he doesn't really have much for them to do. Even the way he uses sound in the film on those few occasions he breaks his own rules isn't something that pays off thematically. It's just momentarily neat.
I wish I felt the same love for this that everyone else seems to. It's never fun being the one who just isn't feeling it. Right now, our own Greg Ellwood is confounded by the love for "Hugo," to the point of exasperation, but I know he genuinely just doesn't connect with it. He's not wrong. it's not the movie's fault. It's just a case of the material not landing with him in any particular way. Considering how much I wanted to love "The Artist," it's doubly confounding that I didn't. I liked it, and I would say that if you're up for a light bit of diversion this weekend, it is indeed good for that. But I wanted something that was going to stick to me, and it didn't. It's been just over a day since I saw it, and it's already fading in my memory, while other films I've seen recently are fresh and vivid and I know I'll be seeing them again as soon as I can. For a film I wanted to see as much as this one, "fine" seems like a major disappointment.
"The Artist" is open today.