What do you do when you watch a love/hate film and you neither love nor hate it? You’re in trouble, because while you come out on the side of positivity you’re not willing to fight to the death for it. You’ve got major issues with the film, but not enough to actively dislike the thing.
The Artist is second only to (the superior) Hugo in the Academy Awards nominations pool and it has the potential to clean up. This is largely a matter of style, because it hits that sweet spot beloved by critics and audiences alike: it’s slightly different, slightly unusual … and it has a little dog in it.
The year: 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the star at the top of the silent film firmament. But as the years pass, talkies come into play, and Valentin is old news. It is up to long time Valentin fan and darling of the talkies, Peppy Miller (Bérenice Bejo), to save Valentin (and his dog) from his self destructive pride.
Presented largely in the style of a silent film, The Artist is a mystery; it’s a love letter to nothing in particular, appearing to use antique forms while signifying nothing much by their utility. Certainly, Valentin has a well trained dog. Certainly, Dujardin has a wonderfully expressive face, and Bejo is something of a revelation to English speaking audiences who have likely only seen her in the Heath Ledger vehicle A Knight’s Tale, but there’s something about The Artist that seems slightly off. In this age where film makers have fetishised the act of film making as a genuine labour of love (and here comes Hugo again, where Scorsese essentially revolutionised 3D in a way that James Cameron could only dream of and that we’re likely to never see again), The Artist literally has almost nothing to say.
The Artist had the potential to be a dark masterpiece, but this was never going to happen. While all of the pieces needed to create a happy ending are liberally peppered throughout the film, the drama is so unevenly balanced that a massive tonal shift has to take place – completely breaking the rules of the film to date – transforming potential tragedy into a cheap joke in the process.
Consequently, The Artist never truly allows itself to soar. Progress is not holding Valentin back; Valentin himself is. Peppy and his long-time driver, Cliffton (an excellent James Cromwell) care for him for reasons that we can’t truly fathom, because we only briefly get an idea of his true charisma before we have to deal with his arrogance and hubris.
The Artist is indeed different, but it’s not really special by any metric. The introduction of talkies is not reflected by any change in the film’s presentation or style, leading to stagnation in a film that is supposed to be about the inexorable march of progress. Had the film expressed full fidelity to the silent form this probably wouldn’t matter, but the most interesting sequence is a foley nightmare. Whatever vision Michel Hazanavicius had is compromised by his inability to stick to it.
The Artist is well acted and there are indeed moments beautiful to behold, with particular attention paid to stairs, but as a movie it’s not entirely satisfactory. The audience is left wanting more than mere fluff and neatness, but these are goals that The Artist does not honestly try to aspire to. This movie is an interesting, if unsuccessful, experiment, and little else besides.