Title: The Artist
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Surprisingly in 2011, we have a “black and white silent film”. The Artist is surely an unusual animal, but even more surprisingly is that it’s been undeniably successful in winning over the hearts of critics and viewers alike. But does it live up to the hype? Not quite. In The Artist, we have a story about the progression and impact of audio in cinema, only told through a relationship between a man and a woman. It’s an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it squanders it by not taking full advantage of the amazing cast and possibilities within the silent medium. Director Michel Hazanavicius has a passion for the era, and it shows, but unfortunately the problems outweigh the positives.
George Valentin, played by French actor, Jean Dujardin, is the comically self-indulgent premiere actor of the time. He’s suave, mustachioed and incredibly over-the-top. One day, a fan accidentally stumbles into the picture with George, and the two are caught in a strangely awkward moment on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. This woman, named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), continues to fall into George’s life in a variety of ways. Peppy is an aspiring actress, and George helps her find her place. The two have a great deal of chemistry together–with her charming wink and his suave, Clark Gable-like appearance. But their relationship is not all wonderful, as her talents are soon noted by numerous agents, and audio is not far off at all.
Granted, there are scenes in the film that truly raise it into new heights. But the drama never feels threatening, or real enough. It’s all in due part to the script, which is sadly underdeveloped. The real core of the film lies in George and Peppy’s relationship. The chemistry is there, but the drama isn’t. We have a film that seems to be more focused on what it is rather than what really matters most: the characters and their relationships. George and Peppy are potentially two interesting people with more to say and more beneath the surface, we just never go there. Their relationship is hollowed out by weak screenwriting.
Hazanavicius directs the film with a keen eye, however. His attention to detail and loving care towards the environment and time period are well done. Like Hugo this year, Michel loves cinema and its history, much like Scorsese. Both films show that perfectly clearly. In one particularly good sequence, George is on the verge of losing it all due to the invention of audio, and he makes a feeble attempt at salvaging whats left of silent cinema. He directs and stars in an adventure film where he’s in the jungle with a beautiful woman. The ones you’ve probably seen parodied a few times. It’s hilarious, but the results are what’s so sad.
Michel Hazanavicius is a talented filmmaker, though he never takes it far enough. The Artist is one of those well-made films that lacks the very charm it tries to create. Although enjoyable, it’s stricken with ridiculous scenes clearly designed to charm the pants off the viewer. Instead, it’s stuck in a state of goofy humor and shallow characters that never fully come into their own. It also made me wonder while I was exiting the theater: is this the only type of silent film we’re likely to get? One that uses silence as a gimmick, rather than as an artistic choice? I’d like to think not.
By Justin Webb