The Artist-attachment0

The Artist

Movie Information

The Story: A silent movie star finds himself left behind when talkies come on the scene, while the girl whose career he helped launch becomes a big star. The Lowdown: The very fact that a silent movie -- done in period style -- is coming out today is cause for some celebration, and while The Artist may not be quite as remarkable as the claims that precede it, it has charm to spare and is a must-see.
Score:

Genre: Comedy Drama
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Crowmwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Rated: PG-13

Well, here it is, the film I’ve been asked about more than any other: Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 offering The Artist, the brand new silent movie. It finally comes to town this Friday, and I expect to see much rejoicing among film fans. And, yes, it’s a very good film with tons of charm, a generally spot-on period look and an obvious love for the movies. Plus, it’s just plain pleasant to encounter something simple and quiet these days. I enjoyed it a great deal (more on a second viewing than the first) and I hope that not only will people turn out en masse to see it, but that it will make them seek out silent films from the era it evokes. Now that I have enthused—honestly—over The Artist, let me say that, no, I don’t think it’s the best movie of the year, nor do I think it’s the greatest thing to come along since synchronized sound.

A great deal of the appeal of The Artist is the pure novelty of the experience. It will probably be a lot of people’s first exposure to any silent film—at least as an entire feature-length movie—and in that respect, I suspect the film’s calculations are very shrewd indeed. Making it a movie about silent movies—and their demise—makes it feel authentic (even if it’s not very), as well as fun and unthreatening. It doesn’t demand much of the viewer to get into a vibe that itself is based on the idea that silent movies are old-fashioned stuff, and that their quaintness is part of their charm. At bottom, it’s a silent movie for—and, I can’t help but feel somewhat by—folks whose idea of silent movies comes from Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The film’s story deals with the advent of sound, and how that new development impacts the career of dashing silent-film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). While Valentin’s name suggests Rudolph Valentino (who died in 1926 and never faced the sound revolution), his appearance and persona has more to do with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The film is actually quite clumsy in establishing just why George doesn’t make the transition to the talkies. He’s just suddenly out on his ear and goes off to make his own silent movie—a pre-determined disaster. In the meantime, the pretty starlet, Peppy Miller, whose career he helped launch only climbs higher and higher in the realm of talking pictures. If all this sounds familiar, it has a lot to do with A Star Is Born (any version), which itself owed a lot to What Price Hollywood? (1932). There is, however, much to be said for keeping things familiar and simple with a project like this.

The Artist is meticulously crafted and full of nice touches (catch what’s on the marquee George walks past after things go wrong). It looks like a film of the era (though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a silent movie with optical wipe scene transitions). It seems to have been shot with uncoated lenses, making every point of light slightly sparkle, and its exteriors have that feeling of being suffused with unspoiled California sunshine that you see in silent and early sound comedies. With its evocations of other movies, The Artist is clearly a labor of love. Without working at it, I caught references to Love Me Tonight (1932), The Thin Man (1934), Citizen Kane (1941), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and Valentino (1977). But you’ll notice a curiosity about that list—its evocations are from talkies, not silents.

When I first saw the film, the minute the house lights went up co-critic Justin Souther remarked, “Well, it’s no Sunrise,” referring to F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent masterpiece. I countered that few things are and that the comparison was unfair. But was it really? Stripped of its novelty value, just how good is The Artist? A lot of the appeal is certainly grounded in novelty and a general ignorance today of film history. (One big-name critic—oblivious to the fact that by 1927 a lot of movies had synchronized music and sound-effects tracks—made an issue of the film not really being a silent because of the music and sound effects.) If it really was a film from the final days of silent movies, The Artist would be considered a charming minor work, but today it has the allure of a freshness it may not entirely deserve, but one that makes it go down very smoothly. Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and crude gesture.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

25 thoughts on “The Artist

  1. Ken Hanke

    Considering the furor that has erupted in some places, have I made it sufficiently clear that this is a silent movie? It is not a talkie.

  2. Xanadon't

    Wait. What? But John Goodman has always talked in all the movies I’ve seen him in. I love when he says stuff.

  3. Edwin Arnaudin

    “Charming” and “harmless” were the first words that came to my mind. Definitely enjoyed it, though.

    THE ARTIST is essentially a well-made tribute full of blatant but pleasant mimicry. Its use of silent film techniques and the inherent limits of any homage is similar to how SUPER 8 focuses so much on being Spielbergian that it doesn’t carve out enough of its own style. With a few exceptions, the only time I felt THE ARTIST truly did its own thing was, fittingly, when sound invaded the characters’ silent world.

    I haven’t seen Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 spy spoofs (also starring Dujardin), but I hear that they’re well made and have a feeling that THE ARTIST is ultimately a highbrow extension of his interest in reworking and exploring established genres. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, especially when it’s done so well, but I’d have enjoyed THE ARTIST even more if it had transcended its genre more frequently.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I’d have enjoyed THE ARTIST even more if it had transcended its genre more frequently.

    I think that’s fair. I also think that there’s a tendency to think of silent movies as a genre, which isn’t true. It’s a format — there are all kinds of silent movies (except musicals, unless we exempt early sound hybrids with occasional musical numbers in an otherwise largely silent format). The Artist loves silents, I’ve no doubt, but it still presents them as quaint and rather silly. And yet it takes place in era of silents that gave us 7th Heaven, Sunrise, The Cat and the Canary, The Wind, Street Angel, The Last Warning, The General, Metropolis, The Last Command, Spies, City Girl, The Circus, Tempest, The Beloved Rogue, The Kid Brother, etc. — all of which are more sophiticated than the image The Artist trades in.

  5. Edwin Arnaudin

    The Artist loves silents, I’ve no doubt, but it still presents them as quaint and rather silly.

    I never got a feel of whether George’s films were respected or merely popular. Seems like the one that starts the film is more light and humorous, but he takes his craft so seriously that I feel he must have made more sophisticated fare. (Isn’t his range alluded to? Maybe through a magazine cover?)

    The labor of love George self-finances seems like his effort to highlight everything that’s right about silent films, and the clips we see feel more dramatic and heartfelt than his fluffier work. The quicksand scene may be somewhat of a fantastic element, but I found it moving.

    So, I don’t know. I’m not sure whether THE ARTIST makes a definitive statement either way concerning its take on silent cinema. Is that Hazanavicius honoring the format’s versatility or an unwillingness to take it as something more than entertainment?

  6. Ken Hanke

    I never got a feel of whether George’s films were respected or merely popular. Seems like the one that starts the film is more light and humorous

    And the one we see him make has a title that makes it sound like a knock-off of the one we see at the beginning. The film never really makes a case for him as a serious filmmaker.

    The quicksand scene may be somewhat of a fantastic element, but I found it moving.

    But weren’t you finding it moving as allegory to his real life — as part of the fabric of The Artist, not as a separate work in itself? I can’t really see that there’s much right about the movie he’s making. It looks like a dumb jungle movie to me.

  7. Edwin Arnaudin

    But weren’t you finding it moving as allegory to his real life — as part of the fabric of The Artist, not as a separate work in itself?

    It’s definitely an effective allegory (and most of THE ARTIST works best in that manner), but I still thought that scene was well made. He does say, “I never loved you,” which makes it a bit hokey, but the shot of his hand going under the sand is magnificent.

    Perhaps the film he makes is all he’s capable of. I got the impression that he put all of himself into making, what he calls and Peppy echoes, a “great film.” I may just be blinded by his passion for the format and am mistaking it for sophistication.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I got the impression that he put all of himself into making, what he calls and Peppy echoes, a “great film.”

    But Peppy’s in love with him. I’m not.

  9. Ken Hanke

    How The Artist Gets Quicksand Wrong:

    Bear in mind that was written by somebody who thinks 1962 was 40 years ago. That’s the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start.

  10. Jeremy Dylan

    No one told me Freddy Rumsen was in this – what a nice surprise. I guess they couldn’t break the format to allow him to play Mozart with his fly.

  11. Jeremy Dylan

    Season 5: a month and some change away!

    Oh yeah! It’s close enough to my birthday to qualify as a gift. I wonder if they’ll have skipped over a longer than usual time period to reflect the longer than usual hiatus?

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Something like 3 years, apparently. That’s almost how long they were off the air!

  12. Me

    Finally caught up with this one and its like a fluff Guy Maddin film. Hes been doing this thing for more than a decade and never gets any academy recognition and this thing comes in and sweeps it.

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