The critical praise for Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist baffles me, especially since they say that it captures the silent era that the movie tries to reenact. Thinking about camera movement in those silents, the shot by shot relationships, image quality, the acting, and storytelling. When I look at those categories, The Artist seems to fail in almost all of them.
The characters let us read their lips instead of the inter-titles writing what they’re saying. Understandably, inter-titles are pesky and a silent seems smarter the less inter-titles it has But if Hazanavicius wanted to use those sparingly, at least he could have written a script with more action and direction instead of close human interaction. Besides, silent acting is gestural, intense and expressive – it’s definitely not like watching a movie with the volume turned down. These actors’ styles were too contemporary and introverted for the medium, anyway. At least Singin’ in the Rain had some respect to authentically imitate the silent acting style.
Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the anti-hero George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) extramarital love interest, becomes her rival because her rising star would signal his failing career. Although she would never have been a star the way the movie makes her, her bubbly yet chic personality an alien creäture from the Arcadian yet All-American sweetheart or temptress types prevalent in 1927. Her dark skin, would also make her face prejudices that actresses experience today.
A part of the movie’s conceit is where George ‘refuses to talk.’ From his first scene he’s proven to be insufferable, his cockiness making me root for his failure. His decisions during this period in film history seems stupidly inaccurate because first, there’s the Kathy Selden argument against silent film. Also, when talkies came, most actors hurriedly tried their voices out. An actor’s voice had to sound terrible for him or her to be unemployed while some of them are financially stable enough to quit. It’s still strange to watch George dismiss talkies as a trend, stick to silent movies as an art form, crown himself as the titular ‘artist,’ and financially bury himself in the process (And yes, I know Charlie Chalpin existed). As much as I liked seeing him fail, it’s as if the movie uses a character’s pride to create a forced arc towards downfall.
Its visual language, though beautiful, is anachronistic. Others have compared it to Citizen Kane but watch out for shots resembling those in An Affair to Remember or its use of the music in Vertigo – apparently Ludovic Bource didn’t bother to write a coherent score for the movie – these references grating because they’re not supposed to be there. At the same time I had to consider that not every silent operated the same way. Murnau let his camera creep, Lang occasionally used quick pans while Griffith and most directors preferred short takes and multiple camera set-ups. The Artist, however, is self-indulgent with too much camera movement as well as letting its audience know how long its average shot length is. Sometimes it zooms to a poster that would direct the characters what to do, which is, again, what the inter-titles are for.
But I liked some things. Sound, foley or lack thereof is intelligently used here, especially in the dressing room scene when Peppy closes the door quietly behind her, as if letting us decide to feel whether she’s angry, sad or any emotion we can interpret for her. Despite Bejo being miscast, I kept checking on Peppy if she’s still the same character introduced in the movie, the fan girl waiting for that sliver of George’s presence, that humble struggling actress. I’m not sure if the fame has gotten into her, no matter how soberly she approaches it. But she’s never jaded nor purely cruel. I even like the damn dog, Jack’s (Uggie) rescue mission seeming like a non-sequitur I would see in an actual silent movie.
I understand that we can’t turn back the clock, making the images here look grainy and such. Nonetheless, it is necessary for a contemporary silent film to look and feel like the ones in the past. Silents aren’t like a genre with arbitrary conventions against which present or future filmmakers can rebel, it’s an actual medium with a relatively strict language. If someone is going to make a silent movie they have to follow some rules.
Even without looking at it from a technical standpoint, it still doesn’t have the same danger, ambition, pathos, comedy and magic that silents do. It relies on cuteness that for me doesn’t sustain itself. It’s disappointing that I can’t share the hype behind the movie, that this facsimile is a really cheap one, making me long for the real thing instead. But then you’re probably normal and don’t see the same problems in this movie like I do.
- Is The Artist the best film of the year? (telegraph.co.uk)