…and the quest to see everything

Bad-ish Movie: The Artist

The critical praise for Michel HazanaviciusThe 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.

10 responses

  1. Matt Stewart

    haven’t seen this one myself but I have a feeling I won’t agree, still very informative review and interesting thoughts you have here.

    December 30, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  2. wow. i saw some luscious clips of this movie. i guess overrated?

    December 30, 2011 at 7:54 pm

  3. hmmmm, maybe I will wait to stream this film, thanks fo the heads up.

    December 30, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  4. Matt, Candice and 3guys1movie: As much as I’m detailing the reasons why I don’t like it, I’m fully aware that I’m in the minority. Many critics like it and you might too. Also, Candice, I was blown away by the trailer. It’s still a beautiful movie but that beauty’s forced and superficial. I thought it was going to be the same emotional trip and I was very disappointed.

    December 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm

  5. j

    I saw it at the Arclight in Hollywood on 12/25/11 and I hated the film. I think everyone on our row did as well. We counted “5” people on each side of us that were sleeping and that was just on our row. I love a good art film but this one was boring and the sound track was horrible. I could not wait to see this movie and that is why we went on the 25, to beat the crowds. I think everyone is afraid to say they hated it but if there were 5 sleeping on my row I can only imagine the other rows, keep in mind this was at the Arclight.

    December 31, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    • Black Dog

      When you find yourself looking at your watch during a movie you know it’s a bad film. I looked at my watch almost constantly. Longest two hours I’ve spent in a theater since Chicago!

      January 15, 2012 at 10:09 am

      • Hey, Chicago ain’t that bad. At least it was loud enough to have kept my attention everywhere else. But you’re still on the nose on how The Artist has no consistent movement for flow between scenes, which individually should have been highlighted or directed better.

        January 16, 2012 at 11:14 am

  6. Paolo, very good take on why you didn’t enjoy the movie nearly as much as most. However, I must disagree with you that the movie has to feel exactly like 1920’s silent film. This is very much a contemporary exercise in style rather than a simple reproduction of past work.

    January 2, 2012 at 6:58 pm

  7. j: How dare these people sleep while watching an art house movie! Just kidding, sometimes, a cappuccino isn’t strong enough. And I agree with you on the soundtrack, which is essential in a movie where words can’t express the emotions. It just hits the wrong notes.

    Castor: Its contemporary feel took me out of the movie, being too polished to give me that nostalgia that you or many people must have felt while watching it. It was like the Hawaiian party in The Social Network, where some of the little details and most of the big ones felt really wrong.

    January 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm

  8. Bridget

    I cringed through this entire movie. I can’t consider it a film. I found it a painful cliche.

    January 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm

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