The Artist (2011)

Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Joel Murray

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

Expectations: High hopes, but moderate expectations.

I love film, if I didn’t I wouldn’t bother writing about it. I consider myself something of a film historian, not that I collect and catalog old works, but that I’m concerned with maintaining an understanding of the industry in its many forms throughout the years. Silent films were a huge part of my life about ten years ago, so much so that I was pretty much watching nothing else. It is this foundation that instantly gets excited when talk of a new silent film emerges. Then I happened to see the trailer and I realized that not only was it a silent film, The Artist is a film set in the silent era and its plot revolves around the film industry. Great. As much as I love film, I kinda hate films about Hollywood, so my expectations were instantly cut in half, which is honestly the best thing that could’ve happened.

And now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that I don’t really understand why it’s getting so much praise. I mean, I get it… if Drive was the movie that lit millennials’ bulbs in 2011, and The Tree of Life was the one that rang the bell for arthouse fiends, then The Artist is the film that floats the boat of the nostalgic lover of old Hollywood, but shouldn’t a film actually be good beyond the hype, pretense and nostalgia? All three of these critically acclaimed movies fell far short of the mark for me, and as much as I didn’t care for it, I’m tempted to say that The Tree of Life is the best of the bunch, regardless of my star ratings (which I stand by). Didn’t expect to ever say that.

But back to The Artist. It’s OK. Once you get past the novelty that it’s black & white and it was filmed in old school, 1.33:1 Academy ratio, it’s really a rather simple, boring story. If you’ve seen any “rise and fall” film, you can stay home and enjoy those two hours however you’d like because you know exactly how the film will play out. George Valentin is a silent film sensation, until the plucky new girl in town Peppy Miller gives him a run for his money. The Artist is definitely enjoyable overall, featuring a few genuine moments of brilliance, but Best Film of the Year talk is just ludicrous. OK, it looks like an old movie, big fucking deal. How ’bout an original story? For me the film also falls short on the nostalgia factor, a commodity The Artist spreads around like it’s sand at the beach. Instead of simply targeting the twenties and the styles of the silent era, director Michel Hazanavicius ropes in elements of film noir, pre-code 30s comedies (the breakfast table scene feels strongly of Lubitsch, at least visually, as well as Big Daddy Citizen Kane in subject matter) and 1950s melodrama. In a strange turn of events, the era the least represented is the 1920s! The film opens with one of Valentin’s silent films, but instead of evoking the feeling of a silent film, it feels like a 30s serial. It’s fun, I don’t want to take that away from the scene, but it never looked right to me.

To add to this feeling, later in the film Valentin watches some old film reels. We’re led to believe that he’s been binging on them all day?/week?/month?, but the one we see him watch is actually the Douglas Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro from 1920. Valentin gives off something of a Fairbanks vibe throughout the film, so I was puzzled by showing the actual Fairbanks here. Not only does the footage look remarkably different from anything previously shown, I wonder if we as an audience are supposed to think that this is one of Valentin’s films, or if we’re supposed to get the reference and reminisce about Fairbanks. It’s a small moment and arguably one that doesn’t matter, but I can’t imagine I’m the only one to instantly identify the classic film and wonder what was going on.

On a more positive note, the dog is cute as hell and totally steals whatever scene he’s in. The dog itself seems to be a reference to The Thin Man films and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a whole host of cute dogs in films again because of this. You just can’t deny a cute dog. Not to be completely outdone, both Jean Dujardin & Bérénice Bejo also pull out top-notch performances. They’re a joy to watch and both look absolutely stunning as old Hollywood figures. They truly nail the look of the 30s and Hazanavicius creates some very memorable, amazing shots throughout the film.

As is probably apparent by now, The Artist is filled with references to old Hollywood films, and this is one of my biggest problems with this film. By focusing on nostalgia and direct references to other films and old Hollywood, the film at the heart of The Artist is disingenuous. It’s not much of a movie beyond strapping together a bunch of tired Hollywood tropes in a giant nostalgia masturbation package. It’s incredibly similar to what Tarantino does with his films, but at least Tarantino makes the compilation film you’re watching interesting in its own right (usually).

The most egregious offense is the climactic scene of the film that features key music from Bernard Hermann’s classic Vertigo score. Does the music work in the scene? Yes. Does it help the movie overall? No. In fact, the use of Vertigo‘s score instantly took me out of the film and had me questioning why it was being used. I started re-examining the plot and wondering why music from Vertigo would be used in this instance. I didn’t take it simply as music, but as commentary on the scene itself. While watching I came to terms with it and saw how little elements of Vertigo‘s plot had been taken and re-purposed for The Artist. But while the music works over the scene, it ultimately makes me think less of the film as it blatantly exposes how the film is nothing more than carefully composed nostalgia. Am I supposed to be impressed with this? Or am I supposed to just think about how much I love Vertigo while The Artist ends and then walk out of the film riding that nostalgic love of classic Hitch? Really? And film critics are accepting this shit?

I was excited to see a new silent movie, but instead I got a jumble of old Hollywood references and a story as old as sin. I’m truly sick of these bullshit nostalgia films that seek to make a film of the past, but instead do so only with a wink and a nod. Then when people call the filmmakers on it they reply that it’s a love letter to whatever they’re trying to capture. If you want to make a silent movie, just make one and leave the references at the door. It doesn’t have to be about classic Hollywood either (or perhaps it does to attract the attention of the industry), it can be anything you want. Look at the silent movie within a movie in Almodovar’s Talk to Her for a perfect example of a good way to pay homage to silent films without relying solely on stealing specific story elements from them. That’s where The Artist really dies for me; instead of creating a new, genuine piece of art, they went and wrote a love letter that seemingly doesn’t understand what made silent films great. Just by making a silent movie you are honoring old Hollywood. We don’t need our heroine spouting fuckin’ Greta Garbo lines in the inter-titles.

14 comments to The Artist (2011)

  • This was a very well-made film and had its moments where it captures the whole spirit and essence of the silent film era but it’s not that life-changing experience that everybody says it is. Still, a good flick though and I do think it does still deserve the Best Picture Oscar just because I don’t think The Descendants would be a very good winner that will last for the ages. Good review Will.

    • Haven’t seen The Descendants yet, but based on my gut I’d agree that this would be a better Best Picture winner. Of the nominated films I’ve seen, I’d give it to Midnight in Paris and I wasn’t even all that crazy about that one. I’d just rather see its theme of living in the present moment awarded over carefully crafted nostalgia.

  • Wow. What a review! It’s good to know somebody can look past the soft-focus hype surrounding this “throwback to ye olde hollywood” and give us a review about the film without pandering to anyone.

    I was temped to say you were being a bit harsh, but re-reading your article, I see your points are valid, well constructed, and hard to argue against.

    Now I can’t wait to see it for myself, and see what I get out of it!!

    • Thanks, Rodney! I was thinking it was kind of a shitty review when I posted it, so I’m glad it resonated with you. I probably am being too harsh on it, but I just get so annoyed with nostalgia films. As much as this is a movie for Hollywood people and fans, I think having a good knowledge of the classics actually works against the movie here, because you see through all the novelty and realize just how much is coming from older films. I’ll definitely be interested to hear what you have to say on it.

  • Probably the first review I read that isn’t in favour of the film! You always construct your arguments so well and always have valid points, so this was a great write up! I can’t agree or disagree yet because the Artist isn’t out here for a couple of weeks yet! I’ll get back to you, haha.

    • Thanks, Ruth! It’s not a bad movie, and it’s one that’s expertly and impeccably produced, but I just have a hard time buying into the nostalgia films. There’s a lot of things in this that I really enjoyed, but there was a lot more that I didn’t. Everyone else in the theater seemed to love it though. Looking forward to your thoughts on it!

  • Yeah, I pretty much agree with you on this on all counts. Even though I’m a lover of old movies, this one never seems to actually hit the nail on the head with what made silent film great. I noted it in my own review, but it really feels like a 1950’s idea of the silent film rather than a genuine homage. Too bad.

    • I think this film plays better to people that don’t have a real love of older film. I find that people with no interest in old movies seem to be really enjoying it. It’s a novel film, but not much else. Not entirely sure why the critics are loving on it so much. Thanks for the back-up, I was beginning to think I was one of the only people that didn’t go gonzo for it.

  • Totally with you on this. I think the key factor is that if you’ve seen any (let alone hundreds) of silent films there’s just no novelty/enjoyment to be had in the fact that it’s black/white, silent, box-framed and intertitled.

    I also think that this, paired with the “it’s all about Hollywood” is just pulling so much wool over the critic’s and public’s eyes.

    I did really like the visuals though, very striking.

    • Yeah man, without that novelty the movie is so shallow. It’s gonna win the Oscar too, I can feel it. Whatever, the Oscars have pretty much always been dumb.

      Agreed, a lot of the visuals were very nice. I just wish they were in a better overall movie.

  • mamap

    Good arguments. I’ll tell you why I bought all of it, faults notwithstanding:) I remember reading some Bogdanovich interview book or another, talking to lots of behind the scenes people from 40s, 50s etc – the technicians to lesser knowns like Raoul Walsh, Dwan etc – who all started from the bottom of the ladder during silents (or waning days of them.) The impression I got, is looking at the whole of movie history, silents planted the seeds for a lot of these people. The inspirations, tough work ethic, creative daring etc only got a germination to full flowering, when they continued on during talkies in the 40s/50s genre films. Most of them agreed that silents didn’t have to die so completely and quickly, but its influences lived on in their works (primacy of the image etc.) They saw their own work as logical children or legacy of Silents, and because creativity is such a Rorschach test, I guess Hazanacius can be partially forgiven for belonging to this community of “children of Silents & their legacy”, instead of a proper documentarian which he failed at:P
    The Vertigo score *was* distracting. If you remember, Scottie was zoning in and out of the illusions he had of Madeline – after which there was point of no return for he had a need of choosing to see Madeline in the way that suited him. In Artist’s pastiche, George chose to see all of Peppy’s good intentions as markers to his grave. Yeah technically it doesn’t earn such “depth” of insight into the couple’s relationship as “dominant film texts” already forged, but in the personal tradition of Hazanacius’ work which is homage-parody (think Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles – except Hazanacius’ humor is more dry/straight-faced per the 2 OSS movies) it’s a natural way of telling the story for him (but “lazy” assemblage to “us”.)
    I don’t know about assigning genuine or disingenuous to the film’s heart, but each viewer reserves her own right choose what warrants their attention:) To me lots of the hokey elements (they DO know Tears of Love was a jab at George, the pause on delightful man-dog interaction in full view of wife to so openly yet subtly smite her) were playful impressions on two reelers, clunky non-classics, genre tropes that I still watched if only to find out what else was in the silent movie culture beyond the classics. When they say Artist for movie lovers, I expect they mean a forgiving mass who consume for the hell of it, who range from stickler knowledge of movie history to narrower tolerance levels, and probably just anyone who believes in payoffs of the eternal tropes (love/optimism/ perseverance conquer all, lol) if getting there was halfway convincing.
    P.S. the Garbo line was a bit obvious, but it’s also a bit ironic because Peppy was a diva at that point, who said it (to her boy toy!) only because she was spurned FIRST by a Male Diva who wanted to be alone in his own world of “No Talkies For Me!”
    I wonder if this movie works better, for fans of OSS movies ’cause this is not a serious/high-minded, “we make classics” crew?

    • mamap

      P.P.S. The Fairbanks Sr movie shown had Dujardin in the closeups. Since it’s him watching his own funeral/old self as museum relic, the graininess worked (or am I rationalizing too much for your taste? :P)

      Again I’m at a loss to explain why even after seeing many “truly innovative” silents and Sunset, Artist felt “new/fresh” to me (low standards?) – maybe it fulfills some anxiety that we’ve lost what it takes to appreciate simple joys, and the joy whilst making it too (yes it’s very journeyman mentality, but you can’t tell me all those pre-Depression audiences paid pennies every time expecting to have their lives changed/minds blown, instead of just forgetting lives’ worries while ogling some hot folks living out their desires and approximate pains.)

      Maybe it’s the performances that feel impossibly surprising: to see such a seamless meshing of various long-lost Silent idols/archetypes, into a coherent, integrated character (mostly because not many Method actor greats ever convinced me they stepped right out of those bygone eras, the totally non-condescending use of pre-Method acting style, and previous Books/Gene Wilder stabs at playful silents were ambitiously unwieldy, whereas Artist straitjackets itself with an amusing discipline, albeit to pant at the grandfathers’ feet or portraits and distant memories on our collective mantle.)

      Like, Norma got locked up in her grotesque crazies, and I got rather curious about the “life after silents” of von stroheim’s rueful butler, even if it’s not as garishly entertaining. So George’s low-key alcoholism while carrying on as if his pride still can’t be taken down, approximates this need of seeing “But what happened to the discarded without glamour?”

      I wonder if the justified vitriol Artist gets, is due to its insane swarm of awards. De Palma, giallo, various westerns, horrors, noirs, Truffaut’s fanboy stuff etc all regurgitated genre tropes and ways of doing things without too much stoning. I’m sure it depends on where one’s cultural position lies – for example Kill Bill left some bad taste for me due to having some cultural memories and significance tied to the originals he referenced, which were conjoined together formally without regard to the disparate traditions and manner of “angst” and conflict in the Chinese vs. Japanese heroines he “borrowed” from (and fetishized as cardboard “Rad! Cool Women!”) Ultimately anything put out in the ethers can only hope to land on some common ground, to find its audience. You have every right to not be on board with Artist, just as I got annoyed by Kill Bill aside from Carradine backstory.

      • Love that story about the “children of Silents”. I had never quite considered that wave of filmmakers as such, but it makes perfect sense. On the strength of this film, I don’t think Hazanavicius should necessarily be in that company, but I get what you’re driving at.

        My main beef is with the fact that finally a grand, new silent film is made and it focuses itself on the waning years of silents. I’d much rather see a movie with a story unrelated to silents (even one with tired genre tropes), but I suppose the novelty of it wouldn’t be as high for some if that was the case.

        I still have yet to see his OSS films, so perhaps it’s a case of The Artist not being a good introduction to his sense of humor and style. I don’t need the film to be a classic, I just wanted more from it. I could see the general course of the movie a few minutes in (which definitely happens to me in a lot of genre films), but with The Artist I never really thought the way to the ending was worth watching.

        That’s me though, and honestly I’m glad everyone else is getting such a kick out of it. It’s definitely not a bad movie, but one that I don’t feel is worthy of the hype and praise. At the end of the day, it got a lot of people to watch a silent film who never would have, which does make me smile.

        OK, that makes sense that The Mark of Zorro stuff had Dujardin in close-ups. I remember thinking, “Wow, he really looks like Fairbanks!” Perhaps it was a budget issue, but I wonder why they made the choice to insert him into footage instead of shooting another fake film. I can understand the graininess working for you, and the idea behind it, but it still seems like an odd choice to me, especially considering that only hardcore fans will even know what they’re watching.

        Your point about the performances is a great one. The fact that literally everyone in the production was able to resurrect the days of silent acting and, like you say, convince us that they were straight out of the era, is truly remarkable. Part of this (for many) is definitely that fact that they’ve never heard of or seen Dujardin or Bejo in anything prior, but I don’t want to diminish their accomplishments.

        As for Kill Bill, I’m pretty much with you. As a film, I think it’s a mess and a total jumble of styles and references. But I find the first half incredibly entertaining despite that, where The Artist I didn’t. I suppose it’s just a taste thing. I’m a sucker for martial arts films, and while I don’t really consider Kill Bill one, it fits the bill enough to entertain me. The second half I can barely watch though; it’s so self-indulgent and over-long. Tarantino’s real hit or miss with me, but Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds are two of my most favorite films. Like The Artist (and Hazanavicius from what I know of his filmography), I wish Tarantino would ditch the blatant references and just make films (which explains why I enjoy the Tarantino’s that I do).

        Thanks for stopping by and leaving your insightful comments!

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