To commence, let me say that you should not read this review if you are considering going to see The Artist. It is good. I recommend it. And that is enough! Be off with you!
I say this not because I will spoil the plot, although indeed I may. I say it because it is my firm and increasing belief that foreknowledge of a work of fiction is always detrimental to enjoyment of it. I remember going to see True Grit in Brisbane last year. It was, in all honestly, a fair-to-middling movie. Had I gone in expecting to see a great modern Western (as some critics rather bewilderingly dubbed it), I would not have been thrilled. But as it was, attending True Grit was a snap decision, and so I was happily surprised to discover I was watching a Western at all. Every expectation you don’t have increases the freshness of your perspective.
Reviews have their place, of course – in fact, many places. They can help you decide whether to see, attend or read something. They provide an interesting contrast or corollary to your own opinion if read afterwards. And not least, reviews of things you haven’t seen, or have no intention of seeing, provide running commentary on the cultural sphere. But reading a review of a film you’re going to see anyway – why colour your experience with my views in advance? It’s as bad as reading the back cover of novels, which have a horrible habit of revealing plot points from up to a third of the way into the book, completely ruining the author’s carefully laid web of exposition.
So if you’re going to watch The Artist, I say to you: step ye notte across thys lyne, until watch it thou hast.
Well, alrighty then!
The Artist is a silent movie, and a homage to silent movies. It follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a star of the silent screen, but discarded by an unsentimental industry with the rise of the talkie. Digging himself into bankruptcy with failed attempts to resurrect his career, he sees Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an extra given her first chance by Valentin, rise to stardom. Miller offers support, but Valentin’s pride is too stiff to accept.
And throughout, it maintains the appearance of the late-twenties era it evokes. It is entirely black-and-white, and speech is portrayed by white letters on a black screen. The score is vast and orchestral. The acting is stylised. And—for the most part—the action is completely silent.
The most pleasing thing about that The Artist is that it works. Not in every respect: there is that title, doomed to join all those many other imprecise determiner—>noun constructions in the junkyard of my head. Nothing about the title will make you instantly recall the film. Compare The Godfather, or The King’s Speech: instantly memorable, and I haven’t even watched those films. The Artist is doomed to far too many “wait, was that the one about the—?” conversations. But silly quibbles aside, this film is a success. And it is a success because it works to its medium.
The Artist is certainly mimetic—no-one could call it abstract, or postmodern. But following the natural tendency of silent film, it is not realist, not even in the fantastic-realist sense of a sci-fi movie, where the fabulous is portrayed as though it were real. Instead, it is stylized to a tee. Its visuals are determined by aesthetic. And such aesthetic! Michel Hazanavicius’ direction gives us clean lines, sharp black-and-white suits, and actors whose visual presence is characterisation enough. Bejo is painfully beautiful as a ‘20s starlet. Dujardin is pencil-moustached dash and vigour. And James ‘Farmer Hoggett’ Cromwell is perhaps best of all, his melancholic visage ideal for crisp black-and-white.
What the early movies knew, and Hazanavicius has recovered, is that films are two things: they are sight, and they are sound. Prose writing is direct information transfer, and that is why a novel has more freedom, and more depth, as a narrative format. A movie is also a single sitting; unlike a TV series, book or game, it cannot lose your attention once. This is one of Hollywood’s most frequent failures—it tries to put novel-sized plots into film-sized boxes (or maybe cans). The Artist steers clear of this trap: it is a film-sized film, in a film-sized box. (M. M. Jordahl’s recent defence of the Fight Club movie, along similar lines, is well worth reading.)
The sound, too, is glorious. I have railed before against the orthodoxy of orchestra in Hollywood, and I have to admit that The Artist score commits every sin I hate. It is emotionally laden, telling the viewer what to feel at any given moment. Dread or mirth are signalled unsubtly by appropriate fanfares. But the difference with The Artist is that the music isn’t tautologous. Instead of ladling excessive emotion onto scenes which would work fine without it, it is the sole source of that dread, that wonder or fear. The soundtrack to a silent movie is, in effect, the narrator. Instead of a sticky veneer on top, Ludovic Bource’s bombastic melodies are an integral piece of The Artist as a work of…art.
Which is not to say it’s perfect. If I was writing this for a paper, I’d probably give it four stars. Ideologically, it’s mediocre: Valentin’s and Miller’s successes or failures are entirely determined by commercial success. Not once is the idea mooted that a piece of art may have value independent of how many bums it puts on seats: in fact, the quality of the films in the storyline is barely mentioned, only their financial performance. The opulence of the characters is obvious and flaunted, leaving a sour-tasting American-dream message: consumption is to be glorified, and poverty despised (a different subtext, which is only revealed in the denoument, is admittedly more progressive). And though for the most part—given that it’s a film about the film industry—The Artist stays pleasingly free of the sort of knowing winks and cultural references which screenwriters too often mistake for jokes, there are occasions when a faint self-referential smugness radiates from the screen. A dream sequence in the middle is one of its biggest set-pieces, and yet I would argue superfluous to the whole. I suspect others would disagree. At times, too, tell-tale hints of a modern Hollywood sensibility can be seen—Hazanavicius could easily have got away with less cue-card dialogue.
But the initial thesis holds: The Artist, unlike most of the glossy-Oscar-hunting sort of films which it will be counted among, works. And this is refreshing. I’m not saying I’d like to see more films like it; one retrospective of late 20s Hollywood shot in late 20s Hollywood style is plenty. But I’d like to see more films on its level. Mainstream movies written by people who understand the movie as a form, and which of its boundaries can be pushed. Perhaps a renaissance is in order, a small revival of black-and-white, silent, sub-two-hour films full of zip and style and glamour which doesn’t need to be applied in post-production. But this time not retrospectives, but current, active, breathing films.
That obviously will not happen. And it’s probable that the feel-good whoomph of The Artist’s finale has tricked me into giving it a slightly glossier write-up than it really deserves. But The Artist is at the very least, a delight to watch. 100 minutes of orchestral bombast and dazzling, movie-star smiles — which, for once, appear genuine.