The Artist (2011, Hazanavicius)

January 9, 2012

[An abridged version of this review was published previously at Image.]

It happens every January — movie ads fill up with boasts about awards they’ve won. In a few days, those boasts will start to include Oscar nominations.

And The Artist is currently the most boastful of all. Filmmaker Michael Hazanavicius’s tribute to Hollywood’s silent film era is stirring up enthusiasm among audiences and critics alike.

And The Artist looks to me like the right film to love right now, if you want to be cool, because it’s so countercultural. This is, after all, the dawn of the age of 3D and IMAX, when bigger and louder and more elaborate is better. The Artist is “silent.” It’s black and white. It’s as brash as an “Occupy the Big Screen” protest. What is more, it’s cheerful in a year of dark, grim, and despairing. So it’s kind of rebellious to love it, right?

Set in 1927 Hollywood, The Artist follows the fall from grace… or rather, the fall from fame… of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star who seems so perpetually convinced of his own entitlement to fame and fortune, so in love with his own onscreen persona, so drunk on applause that we have every right to hope for an educational fall. Not ruination, no… but reform.

As we watch him play the classic silent-movie archetypes — the suave gentleman, the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, the ancestors of Indiana Jones, etc — accompanied by a big-screen Jack Russell terrier who just might beat Tintin‘s Snowy in an IQ test, things aren’t so glamorous back at the Valentin ranch. His wife (Penelope Anne Miller in a return to the screen that’s hardly worth mentioning) is wasting away from neglect, a zombie in the mansion.

I don’t know how you’ll respond to this, but my sympathies were with this poor woman immediately. I quickly figured out that I was out of step with the movie, though. Because the movie’s sympathies aren’t with her at all. More on that in a bit.

The film has already lured us into hoping for the glorious union between Valentin and someone else — his happenstance, love-at-first-sight encounter with an admirer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Clearly, two smiles as big and white as those belong together, no matter what promises have been made. Peppy’s an opportunist with a heart of gold. She’s using her chance moment in the spotlight with Valentin to charm the public and become the Next Big Thing. At this point, the film seems to be headed deep into cynical satire about the superficiality of Hollywood.

But no, Peppy’s celebrity is treated as legitimate and wonderful. And when she becomes the first big star of “talkies,” rising to glory while Valentin plunges down into irrelevance, a victim of the forgetful public, she takes pity on the poor outdated icon.

It turns out that this story is more about the rehabilitation of Valentin’s career than it is about the reformation of his priorities.

One critic summed up the film’s lesson like this: “pride can interfere with progress… failure to adapt can make you obsolete.” Well, sure. But is that a lesson worth celebrating when “progress” is portrayed as the public’s fickle rush to embrace any new trend? Sure, “failure to adapt can make you obsolete.” Does that mean an “artist” — this film’s title rates among the most inappropriate I’ve ever seen — should always adapt in order to please the public? Should box office drive our decisions? Should fame be our goal, and popularity our standard of what is best?

I enjoyed the film’s singing and dancing and visual cleverness… and yes, the dog… for the most part. It was all very playful, funny, shiny, a hoot. Hazanavicius showed guts when he committed to reviving a form that hasn’t been popular for more than half a century.

And yet, a few minutes after the credits rolled, I felt that I’d been served a chocolate éclair made entirely of toxic chemicals. In a year full of meaningful feasts, this is the movie we’re going to celebrate? Very little in it strikes me as award-caliber material. Just because a recipe hasn’t been used in decades doesn’t mean that we should give highest honors to somebody who bakes up a batch to show it still works.

Moreover, in a year when filmmakers seemed especially preoccupied with questions about the meaning of life, why would we choose to give highest honors to a film that celebrates vanity? I don’t mind movies that revive old-fashioned methods. Hugo, The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh, and War Horse all did that in 2011, and their narratives celebrated respectable themes.

Glenn Kenny, who I find to be consistently one of the most thoughtful and experienced film reviewers around, used harsher words than I’m using:

…the fact that this movie is being proclaimed the Best Film of 2011 by various critics’ groups is literally—there’s no other word for it—insane. One could make a snide remark or two about the various members of said groups perhaps strongly identifying with the film’s title character’s entitled indignance at his imposed obselescence, but that would just be mean. However, I will say that any expectation that these proclamations will effect some kind of populist wellspringing on the film’s behalf is even more insane. We shall see.

I won’t go so far as to call my Artist-loving colleagues “insane,” but I sure don’t get what they’re so excited about.

The Artist is, in my opinion, not only frivolous — it’s irresponsible in its glorification of fame, fortune, and glamour. And it celebrates a love-at-first-sight encounter that leads to an extramarital affair (it may not be consummated, but come on: Affairs can happen within a gaze, within a silence). It goes so far as to reduce the hero’s betrayed, neglected wife to comic relief, brushing her aside as a convenient punchline. Call me Hazana-vicious, but this movie seemed to me to be 100 minutes of slick-looking, engaging, ebullient song and dance in service of… what, exactly? There’s the rub. You may smile and smile, and be a villain.

Nevertheless, Oscar forecasters see a Best Picture statue in The Artist’s future. Of course they do. The Academy Awards are the biggest annual party that Hollywood throws for itself, and The Artist is a movie that worships Hollywood — its vanity, its values, its people-pleasing, its superficiality. Looks like a done deal.