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Movie Review: The Artist

The Artist is a relentlessly charming movie. I spent the whole time watching it with a big, goofy grin on my face. The Francophone leads – Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo – are winning personalities, even without voices.

Yes, The Artist is that weird “silent film” that’s been getting all the awards buzz. I hate to bring up Oscar chatter in a review, but it played a large part of how I experienced the movie. I’d prefer to manage expectations. I wouldn’t go into this film expecting anything heavy or world-changing. While writer/director Michel Hazanavicius does clever things with the silent film form that would not work in a sound film, this is neither a deep exploration of the human condition nor a plot that is so original no audience members will be tempted to compare it true classics like Singin’ in the Rain or Citizen Kane. Side characters played by wonderful actors like James Cromwell and John Goodman are caricatures at best.

Still, what is fun and refreshing about this film is its intentional anachronism. There is, of course, sound under most of the film in the form of music and, I hope it is not a spoiler to say that it does not entirely avoid modern elements. (No scenes in color, though.)

Like the enchanting Hugo, I would recommend this film to anyone who loves movies and movie history. With the idea of film history in mind, plus a high-falutin’ title like The Artist and a concept of being a modern silent movie, you might expect it to be pretentious. That it is not. While clearly a labor of love from Hanavicius and his producer-collaborator Thomas Langmann (who put up his own cash to finish the film), it’s as airy and aim-to-please as a film can be.

Would it be a conservative reaction for the Academy to vote for a low-budget foreign-born Old Old Hollywood-style film in this age of grand 3D extravaganzas? Perhaps. Would it be a magnanimous gesture to choose an odd duck of a film because it is beautiful on the inside? Definitely. And that is my cynical reason why I think, The Artist, charming as it is, will not win Best Picture. Still, whether a bunch of Old Old Hollywood types see fit to bedizzen it with awards or not, go see The Artist at the first opportunity. And check your expectations at the door.

5 Comments

  1. Perhaps I became a professional investment analyst because I tend to be a practical person. I believe that form follows function, and so have given first consideration to the practicality of what I put into my home; aesthetics were not ignored but they came second. I chose my car from the recommendations published in Consumer Reports that are based on engineering evaluations of the most important functions built into the vehicles; I am always surprised when people comment on my car’s attractiveness. I think that the best art is produced when the artist has something to say—i.e., content. Other factors, such as composition, and the artiness of the whole thing, of course, are also important, but without saying something there is only form with no content.

    When I view a film, I look primarily for what the filmmakers are saying—the content—to see if I can learn something new or can learn to see something in a different way. Since films are the products of business organizations, I also try to make judgments on how successful they will be. High box office receipts not only mean that the business has been successful, but also suggest profits; a wide area of the public will see the film and so it is likely to bring pleasure into the lives of many people.

    A pleasurable experience during the hour-plus that moviegoers sit in the darkened theater means they are emotionally moved by the film and are likely gratified by the nature of the ending—perhaps there is a delightful convergence of themes at the end of the film that are of the type that persist in all cultures and so are an outgrowth of unconscious psychological wishes or other forces, or, for the less reflective among us, there may just be present some kind of sexually satisfying instinctual experience.

    I suspect that the film was given the name, The Artist because there was recognition that it did not have any content—only form or style. I think it is likely that the filmmakers hoped it would at least appeal to the small art community and thereby provide some return on their investment in it. The reviewers bit and so did those who follow them. I was bored, as I think would be anyone during his stay in the movie theater who expected to see some content, some meaning, some surprise at the end, interesting sets, something more than a rehashing of old plots, old forms of acting and dancing, an absurd musical accompaniment, an absence of clever dialog, tiresome sets, and the performance of a dog for whom no trainer was given credit.

    Backers were too wise to step up to the plate with financing, and so the screenwriter-director had to do so with his own money. So far box-office receipts have not been impressive. The film may go down in history as a case in which the “artists” among us are seen to have been bamboozled.

    Ed

  2. I thought that the film’s implications for our diverse multicultural competitive capitalistic society are more interesting than the heroic behavior of Valentin or his heroic loyal dog Uggi—or, for that matter, his loyal chauffer Clifton or his loyal love-sick girlfriend Peppy. Commonly film fantasies are most appealing to children who, in their play-like patterns of thinking and behavior, are easily able to regress slightly and shift to a degree of envelopment in their fantasies; it is a contributor to why most of the successful children’s films appeal to large audiences. For adults in most cases this shift tends to be more difficult. During most of the lives of adults they have to slug it out in the real world in order to make a living. I suspect that these types of variations in our capacities and personalities account for the large variety of different genres that are able to find success at the box-office.

    I suspect that the contents of this romantic fantasy are likely to be most appealing to those who can subjectively view a film for its literary merits, or to those who can sit back in the darkened theater, “be children again” and just enjoy it for it’s portrayal of how a flawed, bigger-than-life Valentino-Errol Flynn type of heroic character, after a series of setbacks, can overcome his impairments and ultimately find love and happiness. This is the stuff that fantasy epics are made of, and are enjoyed if we can let out the children in us.

    I enjoyed it.

    Jeseppi

  3. The contents of The Artist was something like a symbolic salute to the nobility of our great grandparents. The moviemakers of bygone times, without the film-making technology or the story-telling sophistication that we have today, were able to provide entertainment to an important portion of the public and lay the groundwork for what we currently see in our theaters.

    The Mojo report of total domestic gross receipts of $7 mill. for the first 7 weeks against a reputed $15 mill. production budget, along with the favorable reviews following the Cannes Film Festival showing, suggest that the film will show a profit when international receipts and other sources of income are available.

    Arleigh

  4. Hi. I’m Michaël from France and I want to explain a few thing about this movie.

    1) Unlike the pretty unknow Bérénice Béjo, Jean Dujardin is one of the most popular French actor. But Michel Hazanavicius has a strong reputation of bankable director, not a creative director.

    2) The Artist is not the hit of the year in France, mainly because the movie Intouchables (translate: untouchables). This movie has broken 50 years old record of box office in France. But, here, The Artist is more seen as a highly artistic movie.

    Well, what can I say about The Artist? The story is as thin as smoking paper. But it’s not thiner than 1930 movie’s story. And it’s a really European concept to prefer a strong artistic expression rather a strong story for a movie. From an European point of view, you cannot make a creative entertainment. You have to choose between to divert and to set someone thinking. That’s why movie like “The Social Network” cannot be a real success in France. It’s too creative for people loving good story and definitively too catchy for people loving creative art.
    In the late 50’s, French directors has chosen the second option and it probably was the golden age of French cinema (la nouvelle vague). But, in recent years, French directors (and producers) has chosen the first.

    That’s why The Artist seems to be a UFO and why Michel Hazanavicius has so surprised me. In one way, the movie is a tribute to 30’s American movie. But in an another way, it’s a tribute to best French director (François Truffaud, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.). Some shots are simply awesome with terrific composition. The Black and white conversion (and tones choice) is just perfect. The couple of actors are great and the movie offers a wide range of emotion.

    It’s not the most successful French movie of the year, but undoubtedly the best. And I can understand this is a hard movie to appreciate for American people because the story is not catchy at all, but in Europe, this is the mark of fully creative and sincere artistic expression.

  5. Considering the large number of the awards The Artist has captured, it seems that there must be more to the film than it just being a charming movie about an emotionally gratifying subject (someone who has been able to reacquire lost capabilities and find love and happiness in the process), through a story that has been told many times in the past. Many films have also featured cute dogs (and have given no credit to the trainers). That the shooting script was renamed “The Artist” by those who had financial control of the film, in order to appeal to people who look for art in a film rather than its just appealing to the large commercial sexual romance, digital spectacle, action-adventure, or horror film crowds, also does not seem to explain its success in competitions for film honors. Of course the screenwriting, acting, and directing, were commendable, and the continuous orchestra score throughout the film provided a pleasant background.

    Legitimate complaints could be made about the film’s lack of clever dialog and lack of a substantive message (did it have only an innovative style?) and about the editing, and sets.

    In his excellent article on the film in the February 27 issue of the New Yorker magazine, David Denby expressed the opinion that the two leads are “likeable performers,” but complained that “they move in a straight line in each scene; they stay within a single mood.” He sees the film as “a likeable spoof,” feeling that “it’s bland, sexless, and too simple.” It left him feeling restless and dissatisfied. (He quotes Bruce Goldstein, who often screens silent films as saying, “The Artist shrewdly negotiates just how much of the silent cinema a modern audience can take.”)

    After describing the best characteristics of the films of the silent era, Mr. Denby writes: “Silent-film acting drew on the heroic and melodramatic traditions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theatre; it drew as well on mime, magic shows and vaudeville.”)

    I am inclined to think that the art, that The Artist offered, was an extension of these traditions.

    What apparently is the appealing original art in The Artist is not some form of static visual art, nor is it conventional contemporary theater art such as seen by great performers on stage, or on the screen today, or in the silent films of the past. It is more likely that the sequences of muggings by the actors that the audience follows along in the story line, to the end of the film, are actually sequences of pantomime—something I do not recall having seen in any previous modern films. Correspondingly, the story line itself is something like a silent parody of the simple plots of the silent film era.

    Axaj

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