Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you are aware of The Artist and the rather massive amount of acclaim the film and its director, Michel Hazanavicius is getting from critics across the globe. I don’t normally have time to write about films I don’t like, as I hardly have enough time to write about the films I do like. However, this one brings up so many topics for discussion and thought that I couldn’t ignore it. Needless to say I don’t like the film and several key questions or talking points came to the fore while I watched it. I’ll try to break them out. Basically I think the film is lazy filmmaking. Borrowed plot. Borrowed music. Flat visuals. There’s nothing here of particular interest for cineastes outside its novelty. That’s ultimately what it is- a novelty. I don’t care that many critics are calling it the best film of the year. They’re wrong! Maybe it’s their favorite film of the year, but it’s not the best, or most innovative, or most insightful etc.
So yes the film is silent and yes it’s in black and white. This begs the question of how to evaluate this film fairly in this non-silent film era. I decided to try and level the playing field when discussing this film by approaching it in two different ways. One is to assume, for the sake of argument only, that if all films today were silent films, how would this film be perceived? I would probably argue that there is nothing rather remarkable about the plot, set-design, editing, acting etc. of the film that would make it anything more than your average love story/drama film. Second, if this film were a sound picture, how would it be evaluated? Again, I would argue there is nothing remarkable about the plot, set-design, editing, acting etc. of the film that would make it stand out for me. I have simply seen all of this before and done better. Therefore, its uniqueness, as I see it, is the fact that it’s a silent film in a non-silent era. My bottom line here is if Hazanavicius spent half as much time devoted to the rest of his film as he does to re-hashing plot elements from other films and redundant real-life examples of silent film stars, he would have had something more interesting here. I think he makes the critical mistake of using modern film techniques, and more modern framing (honed in the sound era) to tell a silent film story. It’s basically as if he filmed a sound picture, relying on sound-film conventions, and then put it on mute. This leaves out all the elemental reasons for why silent films worked in the first place. Lack of sound in the silent film era was not an artistic choice (mostly) but a necessary hurdle to tell a story. Therefore the artistic ambition of the great directors was honed to tell the story with the assumption sound was not available and their craft emphasized this visual storytelling. The Artist is too visually flat for it to stand out for me. I was rather bored with the story and the storytelling. Give me something!
The Artist so easily borrows from other films and real-life stories that it remains very predictable. Mainly of course it borrows from films like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, Sunset Blvd., and the real life story of John Gilbert whose career in film was cut short with the advent of sound as his voice was deemed inappropriate for sound films. Greta Garbo famously hand-picked him to join her on Queen Christina to allow him a comeback of sorts, but stories like this certainly abounded in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. My complaint with The Artist is it basically takes these elements and does nothing new with them. I know where this is all going and that’s exactly where it goes. I think many that admire the film overlook this and instead focus on the enchantment of the film or the love story aspect. My complaint here is Dujardin and Bejo spend very little of the film onscreen together. Their “love story” remains maybe 1/3 of the film’s focus. There is great emphasis on the tragedy element and the dramatic aspects without providing enough incentive for my investment. I enjoy love stories as much as anyone, but it’s given very little room to breathe here. The focus is too much on Valentin’s refusal to adapt to modern sound films.
Which brings me to another complaint: Why is Valentin so against joining the modern era of sound films? We are not given a valid motivational reason for his refusal except a vague reference to the fact that he’s “an artist”. This does a total disservice to the fact that numbers of actors were deemed unworthy of inclusion in the sound era due to their lack of voice or accent, not of their refusal to adapt. I mean okay so he has an accent, which we learn at the end, but so did Garbo and Dietrich! We’re asked to care about Valentin’s plight in the film, but without a valid motivation, I’m left wondering why he’s so stupid.
Much has been made of the inclusion of the theme music from Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann toward the end of The Artist. I knew it was coming but was not quite prepared for how bludgeoning this musical “homage” would be. Oh my goodness how awful this choice was! Whether Hazanavicius intended it or not, I found myself completely taken out of the film during this scene. Once the music started, I was somewhere else. In my mind I was watching Vertigo with images of Stewart and Novak moving about my brain and I was no long paying attention to The Artist onscreen in front of me for the length of time the music was playing. I liken this to counting out dollar bills and then someone starts counting out random numbers to throw you off and then you’ve completely lost count and are distracted. I find it hard to believe that Hazanavicius wants viewers not paying attention to his film, but this happened to me.
The Great Silent Film Directors: I leave with these parting thoughts. Griffith made an untold number of silent films prior to The Birth of a Nation (1915). Charlie Chaplin made over 50 silent films before he made The Gold Rush (1925), arguably his first true masterpiece. Buster Keaton made over 20 silent films before he made his first true masterpiece, Our Hospitality (1923). Murnau made 9 silent films prior to his first true masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922). Hazanavicius has made 1 silent film.