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.