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Friday, November 25, 2011

The Artist

In a lot of ways The Artist is a shockingly unambitious movie, or maybe even anti-ambitious, in that it is not trying to do anything new, but actively trying to do something old.

The film opens in 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star in Hollywood. When he makes an appearance after a screening of his latest film, Valentin draws apparently thunderous applause. (This is the first instance where the movie plays with our expectations regarding sound. We open with the end of the silent film, and then the lack of sound from the audience clues us in that we’re still watching a silent movie.) Wordlessly, Dujardin easily demonstrates the way his character feeds off the love of the crowd and needs their attention.

When Valentin leaves the theater to do his interviews with the press, he bumps into a young extra who charms him and the crowd, starting her rise to stardom. First, she earns a small role in Valentin’s next film, where their chemistry on the dance floor causes production problems (he’s so enraptured he forgets to move past their dance scene) and he quite literally leaves a mark on her.

As Peppy Miller, Berenice Bejo is vivacious and winning. She and Dujardin have remarkable chemistry together. Both of their performances are inherently reliant on physicality, and they manage without mugging or emoting (except when the script calls for it, knowingly.) It’s that remarkable chemistry that makes the film’s decision to keep them separate for so much of the story unfortunate.

You see, from their initial encounter, the story of George and Peppy follows a very predictable arc. His refusal to adapt to the advent of the talkie leads to a decline in his star, followed by a decline in his fortune when the stock market crashes. Peppy works his way up through small roles (a montage showcasing her increasing prominence in the credits of her movies is an excellent example of the director Michael Hazanavicius’s ability to replicate the styles of yesteryear) and eventually she passes George on her way up and his way down. This is all too literally depicted in a scene set on a staircase. He becomes depressed, drinks, hits bottom, she remains concerned, tries to help and is rejected, climactic finish, predictable conclusion.

The problem with The Artist is that it is slavishly dedicated to recreation, to the point where creation seems to have been left by the wayside. The wordlessness of the film is its sole reason for existence. It is a gimmick around which the story was formed, not a serious choice for how best to tell the story. There are times when Hazanavicius uses sound to play with the concept of the silent movie, and even teases that he might be going in a new and interesting direction. But these are mere ruses, and the film eventually settles into little more than a painstakingly crafted rehash.

There are moments when the film shines, and uses its wordlessness to high effect. A scene where Valentin gets into character before each take merely by narrowing his eyes is very funny. But other times it is just an inexplicable artifice. Long spans of the movie pass by excessively slowly. The use of title cards to reveal dialogue is sporadic and seems nearly haphazard. Dujardin and Bejo get all they can out of facial expressions but no one’s wink is strong enough to carry a film.

If I had to say what I thought The Artist was about, I guess I would have to say that it’s mostly about movies themselves. It’s very self-consciously a movie, reminding you that even in the scenes set in Valentin’s “real life” that you are still watching a movie. It feels like Hazanavicius is testing the artform itself, using only the elements exclusive to its province to try and capture and engage the audience. Can a movie without words, with only the barest suggestion of a story, win the day using only pictures and music?

By the end it seems like Hazanavicius has chosen to answer that question with “no” but I’m not sure whether he means it or not. The Artist tries to have it both ways a lot. It simultaneously insists that it can communicate without using words, but also plays with how ineffective some of Valentin’s attempts to communicate are. The film relies on Dujardin and Bejo to create their characters wordlessly, but then lets them and us down by giving them flat, unchanging characters to create. Valentin’s self-defeating pride is arbitrary and inexplicable, while Peppy Miller is kind of a blank state, existing exclusively as a foil for Valentin. It’s the kind of female role that would have best been left behind in the ‘30s.

A silent movie gives the viewer an awful lot of time to think, and this viewer couldn’t help but think of ways that this film, so beautiful to look at, would have been more interesting to watch.

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