The Artist (2011, Hazanavicius)

[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.

  • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com/ Peter T Chattaway

    Is anyone — let alone the Academy — seriously loving this movie as an act of “rebellion”?

    • Margaritak

      My friend and I who saw this movie today thought it was a BORE….except for the fine acting of the leads including the dog.  Depression segments were interminable.  whew.  Well done artistically but dragged on.  Loved the dance sequence at the end.  

      • Garyplotkin88s

        My wife and I felt the same. After a half hour, the bells and whistles of the silence and B&W photography gimmicks wore off. Then the story came to the fore, and it was booooring. 

        • ThisCriticIsaGenius

          FINALLY! Could not agree with review more – it is spot on.  This movie was boring, empty and I do not know how I made it to the end.  Best picture?  Now that is comedy.

  • Smw282

    A celebration of Hollywood vanity? It’s a love letter to the very act and history of filmmaking itself, one written cleverly and a hundred times more thoughtfully than this review was.

    • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

      You know that psychopaths, necrophiliacs, nymphomaniacs, and serial killers write love letters, too. Just because The Artist is a love letter, doesn’t make it a good one.

  • Davidowen

    I think your review is slightly over-ideological but I agree that there’s something annoying about the praise being lavished on this film. It’s good but not that good, and it is squarely aimed at mainstream acceptance while being kind of innovative (doesn’t anyone remember Guy Maddin, though of course his films are searing streams of piss in the snow of good feelings compared to this audience-friendly number). Anyway every film should have one critical review, so more power to you.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Thanks, David. I certainly wasn’t aiming to be the “one critical review.” I was just trying to be honest about what impressed me, and what really, really bothered me during this movie.

  • Nathan

    The Artist is not about adapting your ways to please the public; it’s about not getting so hung up on your pride and selfishness that you loose sight of what “art” is really about (yes, in this case, the “art” is simply shallow entertainment. a “dessert”, you would say. Early film was like that; borderline pornographic, in many cases. Baby steps). Sometimes this requires sacrifice and adaptation. Reading printed material may be healthier, but we all sacrifice some of that when we give into the convenience of the internet. The “message” of The Artist is that during periods of adaptation, our preferences must come second. It’s easier to hoard yourself away in your room with your film reels than actually try to work within a system where you’re no longer the star. To use an example of actual innovation, Malick initially said that he didn’t want to use CGI in his films. But through his willingness to experiment in Tree of Life, he created something fantastic with a medium that he initially disliked. It’s not about the box office, it’s about changes in any industry and how we can’t loose sight of the bigger picture because we’re so absorbed with our preferences.

    But, of course, if people go to The Artist looking for the meaning of life, we have some serious problems at hand. It’s not what it’s about that matters; that’s mostly Hollywood cliché and the filmmakers know it. It’s how it’s about it, reminding audience that faces, mannerisms, and camera work can be as moving (if not more so) as dialogue. The story and the “irresponsible glorification” fades because, as Solomon said, it is all hebel and vanity. With that gone, I found what remained with me to be simple, pure, and cinematic. Best film of the year? Certainly not. Worth of disdain? I don’t think so. 

  • Maddie

    Hear, hear! This movie felt contrived, miscast (I love Berenice Bejo, but she was all wrong), and overdone.  Technically, every scene was a beat longer than it ought to have been: Peppy Miller’s rise to fame, George Valentin’s fit of rage….  Dujardin’s dashing Gablesque smile was what won me over and kept me with the film.  Otherwise, I’d have to say, you outlined perfectly my feelings on this.  It was a thumping good time, and not much else.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Yeah, it’s like a big gob of cotton candy. Fun while you’re carrying it around and sweet while you eat it, but the sugar-crash and the consequential headache are pretty awful, and make me ask, “Why did I do that to myself?”

      • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

        Sorry, but I was offended by the opening sequence with the asshole ripping off Singin’ In The Rain by dissing his co-star. No one seems to have noticed how this film also rips-off and trivializes the great film, re-made many times, A Star is Born.

  • Well You Know

    Can a simple, unpretentious, honest and innocent  film be good?
    Do the fact that this film isn’t burdened with vague philosophical subtext make it rebellious, or a bad film?

    You’re slamming this film for the ‘betrayal’ of the protagonists wife. The man didn’t so much as kiss Peppy, we didn’t see this on screen even a whole year after he and his wife’s divorce. Who was betrayed? His wife became jealous and frustrated with his fame and he became despondant and apathetic towards her. You are calling him a villain for not having control over his affections, for not being an automaton when we are supposed to sympathise with every male lead who has either lost his child, his wife or his wife and children?

    You’re right. This film is not a philosophical work on the meaning of life, nor is it particularily critical of fame or the fleetingness of love, and thank god, I’m content with my morality, tell me a story witll you?

    What this film was:
    A refreshingly good time with an innocence and clarity that was a pure guilt-free delight to behold. The acting put a many vacuous holly wood face to shame, and the picture was beautiful, black and white has never looked this good.

    • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

      Unpretentious? That’s may be the most inapt thing anyone has said about this movie. It will be a flash in the pan and two years from now, no one will care about it, want to see it, and the Academy will be embarrassed to have bestowed any nominations on it.

  • My Best Girl

    As silent films go, this one was OK, maybe a 3-star, but it absolutely doesn’t deserve Best Picture for the reasons specified in this review and more… agreed with comment by “Maddie” that Bejo was “all wrong” for the role while Dujardin was mesmerizing.  One of the main problems was the narrative itself.  It really dragged in Act II and was quite predictable (the entire downfall section leading up to burning his films — we all saw that coming from miles away).

    Also, no one mentioned the “borrowing” from Citizen Kane (breakfast scenes w/ wife), Umberto D (the suicide with the dog looking on) and the Act III (climax) music from Vertigo.  If you want to see a truly daring silent film see Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain” from 2006.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Great observations. Thanks! I was beginning to believe that I must have seen a different version of the movie, since so many people think I’ve lost my mind.

  • Ovy

    I maybe had a chance of agreeing with this review after my first viewing, but the second time was such a charm… this review seems deliberately non-conformist. Sure, Hollywood is biased towards films that celebrate its own history, Hugo was a muddled mess and doesn’t deserve half the credit it gets, but The Artist truly is a work of sublime art. I’m not terribly concerned about the claim of lacking subtext or anything thematically relevant — mostly because it’s there, despite this review. Tree of Life may have had lofty ambitions, but a sweet shine of pretension that ultimately leaves you with vague, airy questions completely unanswered isn’t going to match a more solid undertaken than The Artist, who’s point is fine tuned like a laser, but still subtly left within the story and theatrics. The accusation of vanity is one that leaves an eye brow raised, when the entire point at the end was Valentin finally overcoming his stubborn pride and opening himself to others; his dancing scene with Peppy at the end is a stark contrast to the rejection of his costar at the beginning of the film, or the way he laughs at her when first seeing a talkie. It seems like this movie flew right over the reviewer’s head, and he felt more content to conclude Hollywood was fawning over a masturbatory effort than really attempt to give The Artist the benefit of the doubt (which, if you ask me, is exactly what Hugo was; a movie with a select few moments, but an incredibly flawed, disjointed film with unlikable characters that the film tries to manipulate you into sympathizing. The Artist is head and shoulders over Hugo for pure charm alone).

  • razor_sharp

    I am glad to see at least one honest review here on the web! To summarize it: a shockingly empty tale, completely devoid of any human emotion, a loveless love story of a booty-shaking gold-digger and a smiling prick. The gold-digger ended up getting the money and fame (by her acting talents, of course! especially after she humped the jacket of a married supa-star guy) and continued running after the prick (it is either old habits or poor script), who never even expressed his love for the former or anyone really in the movie (well, because he is a prick), he just kept smiling and wailing in self-pity, the only 2 emotions that character churned out. Of course, of course, they haven’t even kissed before the wife got brushed off like a piece of shait. Wonders of editing! Is that why they give 10 noms these days? Oh, because it is silent and black-and-white  – what a genius idea. Well, that doesn’t change the essence, you know.  

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      “A shockingly empty tale.” I’d like to put up a poster of The Artist that has that quote in bold print across the top.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    This is one of the incredibly rare instances when I disagree with you, Jeff. Alas!

    I think you ask more of the film than it claims to give. Not more than its marketing campaign claims, of course, but more than the film itself. It seems to me that Hazanavicius set out to make a silent film authentic to the era. I don’t see how The Artists fails in this attempt.

    I agree with you on the failure of the film to address the chief failing of Valentin in his relationship with his wife. But isn’t that, too, authentic to its era? I’m not sure Hazanavicius set out to transcend silent film – I think he set out to prove that if we dropped a film from the 1920s into today’s cinema, it would captivate audiences just as powerfully as modern films. And hasn’t it succeeded in that regard?

    I’m all for demanding the utmost from art. But I also know I can’t expect sophisticated political analysis from Live Free or Die Hard. I feel like you’re doing the same thing with this. If you mean to critique the critics who lavished praise (and, I agree, misplaced adoration for profundity) on the film, I’m right with you! But I think the film might, in a very clever way, expect you to criticize what you do… and I think that makes the film pretty brilliant.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Speaking of being “authentic to its era” … 

      Karina Longworth (http://blogs.laweekly.com/arts/2012/02/the_artist_harvey_weinstein.php) : “The Artist, then, is a film in which an iconoclast hits rock bottom by staying true to himself, and learns via near-death experience to embrace conformity. . .”   

      Elijah Davidson (http://www.brehmcenter.com/initiatives/reelspirituality/film/reviews/the_artist/): “The time between the end of the silent era and the advent of sound has been better explored in Singing in the Rain. The territories of fame and obscurity have been better surveyed in Sunset Boulevard. Granted, just because a narrative space has been well-traveled
      doesn’t mean it is not worthy of further traversing, but the character arcs in those other two much better films are more true. The characters in The Artist are rewarded for that same desire for fame which dooms the characters in Sunset Boulevard, and their affections are sparked in adultery and seem more like obsession than the more innocent love displayed in Singing in the Rain.
      “Furthermore, if a silent film is a film that relies on music and image to convey meaning instead of dialog, I have seen better (mostly) silent films this year. Drive is almost nothing but music and image, and Hugo is a better homage to the pre-talkie masters.”

      Glenn Kenny (http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/some_came_running/2011/12/the-artist.html?cid=6a00e5523026f588340154383e2d61970c) : “The Artist, which, as you may have read, is a “homage” to the “magic” of the “silent cinema of yesteryear” (I don’t know who I’m actually quoting there, but I’m reasonably sure that SOMEBODY has written those precise words with respect to the film), while presented in Academy ratio, or AN Academy ratio, and featuring no, or not much, spoken dialogue, and such, falls kind of short on production design,
      which struck me as being on the chintzy side, and on black-and-white cinematography, which is frequently more evocative of the house style of Monogram than late ’20s Fox. I know that Larry Blamire’s Lost Skeleton films are pastiches of films from a different era and genre, but seriously, he does a much more convincing job with a lot less money than what Hazanavicius
      accomplishes here.

      “The writing is also kind of slack, which is annoying in a different way. I was put off by how immediately unpleasant the character of the silent-movie artist’s wife, played thanklessly by poor Penelope Ann Miller, was. And then I’m saying to myself, why the hell am I complaining about lack of psychological depth in a pastiche movie. But later on, during the part that has
      the inexcusable use of Herrmann’s Vertigo score (and honest, people, I’m not an OVERLY religious man, but this was really a bit much), and the film is really trying to make you feel something, I’m thinking, well, isn’t this a cute little game: first it wants me to not worry about depth, and now it wants me to cry. Like I said, annoying.”

      Steve Salier (http://isteve.blogspot.com/2012/02/artist.html) : Other nagging problems with “The Artist” are that the title seems like an inept translation from the French. “The Star” would have been much better, since the hero loves being a movie star and pays no attention to whether he’s an artist or not. But the title “The Artist,” combined with being silent and in black and white and made by a Frenchman, makes it sound like some good-for-you ordeal, which it mostly isn’t. . . .”

      • jeffreyoverstreet

        Oh… and Michael Sicinski at CinemaScope says: “This ‘serious’
        breakthrough by French comic director Michel Hazanavicius, best known for
        hisOSS spy-flick parodies, is a head-scratcher, a problem that won’t go away,
        and above all an object that isn’t worth the ire of any hardcore cinephile.
        It’s basic mediocrity in a clever new disguise. … We’re watching a hollow
        premise in action, with the possible proviso that The Artist, like so much
        late-late-postmodernist, decadent-era trash, flatters its viewership for a
        thimble’s worth of Wikipedia learning. To call The Artist an homage to the
        films of the silent era is to imply that Hazanavicius or his muse, actor Jean
        Dujardin, regard them as more than a manageable plot device. They don’t — it’s
        apparent in the overall shoddiness of the production itself — but this doesn’t
        make the film any sort of travesty, or even prevent it from being nominally
        diverting. What it isn’t, however, is magical. It’s a kind of random-access
        image succotash, a wet clothesline of half-remembered iconic moments from a
        college course somebody told somebody else about having taken.”

        • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

          You know, I like silent film, but not this one. I especially like French film. I’d never heard of Hazanavicius, but when I looked him up on IMDB, I discovered that have disliked every film of his I’ve seen. The Artist is no exception.

      • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

        Good point about the title. I saw no artistry in George Valentin. Only over-blown ego, and a lack of integrity and character. The Star is much more appropriate and does relieve one of the more minor irritations I had with this forgettable film.

  • Tim

    I agree. I normally enjoy Overstreet’s thoughtful remarks, but this article felt like disdain for its own sake. And to merely critique a metafilm like this for its message also ignores other aspects. Very disappointing and underwhelming points. I expect more.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I didn’t “merely critique a film for its message.” I also included lines about what I *enjoyed* about the movie. I quoted other reviewers. I noted how it touches on the same theme as many other films (but without as honorable a narrative).

      Do you watch movies as closely as you read reviews?

  • Maurice Cassidy

    I am truly sorry when one reviewer among his peers chooses to bash a film even if he did so in a very clever way.Its nice to be different but you should standout for the right reasons.This review is not one of them!!!

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I wasn’t trying to be different. I enjoyed the beginning of the movie, but the more it played, the more insufferable I found its central character, and the more aggravated I became at its assumption that Hollywood’s favor is to be celebrated so highly. By the end I was bored and annoyed, and I’m not going to lie about that just so I can appear to agree with my peers.

    • M. Leary

      Appealing to “peers” is an interesting strategy here. Who are Jeffrey’s “peers” in this case? Regardless, there are actually quite a few critics that have published well-reasoned criticisms of the film, as listed below.

    • Corey Lahey

      I did not get the feeling that the movie was being bashed here. This is the most overrated movie since Slumdog Millionaire – in my opinion. I’m grateful for this review and “Its nice to be different but you should standout for the right reasons” should be directed at the Artist…

  • Fred

    Walking out of the theatre, I thought that this was a silent movie done by a director who’d never studied silent films. A director not skilled in directing. A film that left me with another thought of, “so what, overrated.”

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  • Sharon Needles

    Bravo! I’ve felt tortured all through the viewing. I keep asking why?? You’ve answered it well. Thanks hollywood for masturbating in my face.

  • Luigi Proud DemoCat!

    Pretty much sums up my opinion of this film. Apparently, those in love with it have never seen the silent films of Marnau, Lang, or the others to whom Hazanavicius claims to be offering homage. It doesn’t even make sense. It steals Bernard Hermann’s score from the 50’s and the story line of 1937’s A Star is Born to pay homage to the advent of talkies with a silent film about an arrogant, alcoholic, adulterous buffoon who prefers bankruptcy, the loss of his marriage, alcohol, burning down the apartment building in which he lives, and an attempted (and unfortunately failed) suicide to speaking on film.