The Artist Review
“I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!!!” exclaims the first text box of the 2011 silent film The Artist. The image of two men torturing a man in obvious pain plays across the screen “Speak!” the next text box demands, and then again with more intensity he is commanded to “SPEAK!” and yet he does not.
The opening to the film is genius, and not only does it set the tone of irony that runs through the entire film, but also mocks the feelings and wishes of the many casual Michael Bay movie fans who I am sure strolled into The Artist on accident or not knowing itwas a silent film.
However, does simply being a silent black and white movie in the age of Avatar (2009) really qualify you for a best picture nomination? Certainly not, so why is everyone going crazy for The Artist? It’s because it is a good film first and a novelty second.
The film depicts the lives of actors in silent films and about the transition from silent film to Talkies, sound familiar? Indeed it pulls a few pages from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The similarities are evident right away. The Artist begins with a scene in which the actors in a silent film literally come out from behind the screen to receive a live audience’s adulation and applause, and unknown to the audience the male and female leads battle fiercely for the most attention and fame. The scene is very reminiscent of the scene in Singing’ where Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, and Lina Larmont, played by Jean Hagen, battle for the limelight in front of a packed house. However, when the first black and white birdie is flicked the viewer is aware The Artist will be taking a different road than Singin’ in the Rain.
Although, with the introduction of an unknown beauty Peppy Miller, played by Berenice Bejo, who has a chance meeting with the protagonist silent film megastar George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, which then sets her on a path for stardom, one can’t help but again see the obvious parallel to Singin’s similar story line with Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds, and Don Lockwood. Indeed at this point I was wondering if it was going to be a complete re-hashing of Singin’ in the rain.
For the first thirty minutes of the film I was sure this was copyright infringement, and then the real break from the Singin’ in the Rain storyline finally came with the introduction of the Talkies. In Singin’ the male silent movie megastar, Lockwood, is chosen by the studio as the obvious choice to star in their new talkies, however in The Artist Valentin is seen as outdated by the studio and fired for “fresh meat.” Fresh meat like Peppy Miller, the woman he stopped the studio from firing and gave something extra, her “Beauty Spot”, to set her apart as a star just a couple years back. Now upon his exit from the studio as he is alone going down the stairs, and simultaneously in popularity, Peppy is rushing up the stairs, and in popularity, with fresh talent. In no time at all, Geroge Valentin’s career is over even before his last film comes out, and Peppy’s career is all the rage before her first film is released.
The Artist now breaks out on its own and tells a wonderfully rich and ironic story chock-full of classic movie nods and brilliant yet simple thematic devices that make the telling of the story just as engrossing as any talkie I’ve seen this year.
Hazanavicius (say that 5 times fast…or even just once) uses nearly every frame effectively to build his story and intertwine it with deeper themes. Specifically his use of reflections and even the movie posters throughout the film are wonderful and understated so that they do not pull away from the film itself but add layers of meaning.
The acting was perfect and seemed absolutely effortless which led me to continually forget this was shot in 2011 not 1927. Everyone down to the extras seemed to belong in this forgotten world. Bejo, Dujardin, Cromwell, and Goodman (don’t think the irony of the man with the “gift of gab” from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? being in a silent movie was lost on me) were all wonderful, but Jack the dog stole every scene he was in.
Hazanavicius paid homage to several other Hollywood films throughout the entire film, yet he did so
tastefully wihtout drwaing attention to the fact he was doing so, thus it came off classy and seamless. Whether it was Citizen Kane when Valentin goes Hulk-smash on his film collection while saving his one memory, or Lassie when his dog runs for help, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when Valentin’s screen character goes in to the quicksand and his hand shoots up all Shredder-like, or using the score from Hitchcock’s Vertigo- just to name a few -when Hazanavicius tips his hat to these classics it’s in a discreet non-in-your-face way which is always best. (Note: If you don’t think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a classic- SCREW YOU! Furthermore if you don’t think Hazanavicius was paying homage to it then you need to go back and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze a few more times and then come back. I accept your apology in advance.)
The film also sheds light on an important problem within our nation- that of women not being able to drive- however that is a matter for another time.
I could go on and on about the use of silence, sound, ironic situations, ironic speech, visuals, etc but then why would I when you could just as easily watch the movie and see them all used together wonderfully. However, I will say this, my favorite text box from this silent film reads, “No one wants to see me speak.”
The film ties up its story and ends with a fantastic real display of talent in a Singin’ in the Rain vaudeville style dance number which the actors actually performed themselves without camera tricks. The actors actually practiced this number in the same studio that the actors from Singin’ practiced. I’m not saying that every film needs a silly dance number, but I am a big fan of seeing real talent and hard work in movies in a day and age where you could have easily worked around the actors’ inability to dance and/or act in an editing room on a computer or with stand-ins.
Hazanavicius took a pretty big gamble in making a silent film for a 2011 audience, and whether or not the same audience that made Cameron’s Avatar the highest grossing movie to date enjoys the beauty of simplicity of the film, it is a good film nonetheless. Indeed, if I were Hazanavicius I would have made the tagline of the movie “A Michael Bay film antithesis.” I enjoyed it, should it be given the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2011? Definitely if Singin’ in the Rain never existed, meaning if it was 100% original then I would say it should win by a landslide. However, I still feel it should be in the running, but perhaps not the front runner but as I always say – “I hate the Academy and they never decide based on anything but silly pompous narcissistic liberal elitism”- catchy saying isn’t? That said, I believe it has a real shot at being in the top three at least.
The Artist is a very enjoyable movie that is superbly directed and acted. That said, perhaps it was a
little over- hyped and pulls a little bit too much from Singin’ in the Rain, but is by far better than most of the crap Hollywood is pumping out these days. If you love movies or even good literature I would strongly urge you to give it a try, but if you want explosions and robots in disguise look elsewhere.
Nerdy Critics Score
4 Overly-excited-John-Goodman-with-a cigar out of 5