With aesthetics borrowed from Sunset Boulevard and F.W. Murnau’s City Girl, a leading duo reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks and a young Joan Crawford, a title that recalls a Chaplin movie and even some Citizen Kane-esque visual flights thrown in, The Artist clearly strives for anachronistic originality.
The film is indeed unconventional and, arguably, ballsy – some directors might risk the black-and-white, but how many producers would gamble on a film free of dialogue?
In lieu of spoken narrative, The Artist is set to a lavish musical score. (With more balls it would have been actually silent, like the real thing!) The plot, however, is as thin and light as a cigarette holder (although hardly anyone ever smokes), while also feeling all too familiar.
Not unlike Singing in the Rain, a silent superstar fails to make a career leap into the talkies and descends into oblivion and destitution. Meanwhile, Peppy, the ‘peppy’ ambitious dancer he helped launch, ascends towards stardom. She’s a nice grateful girl though. She rescues him.
They finally triumph over implacable major studio logic with a furious tap dance finale. The reference to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is flagrant. More flagrant still: they don’t hold up to comparison. And that’s what this film’s problem is all about: you can manufacture an efficient fake, but acrylic or polyester will never have the texture and warmth of wool.
There is a lethal paradox to The Artist. Actual silent movie fans might be congenially attracted and go see it: they’ll be disappointed in what proves to be a cute formal exercise totally devoid of cinematic content. It is fluff, a pale copy of the exponentially more charming silent era originals. (Rent an actual silent flick, go to the cinematheque!)
More mainstream audiences – at whom this lightly scripted film arguably is aiming – might just never bother to sit through two hours of silent parody.
Bafflingly, there are people in between, many of whom are critics or festival jurors, who felt they were seeing something very special. It started in Cannes and might culminate in LA, since the film has been deemed an Oscar frontrunner.
Cannes gave main actor Jean Dujardin a top prize for his talent of aping Fairbanks. Personally we would have given the best acting palm to Jack the doggy. He was cute, well trained, show-offy and didn’t smoke. Like pretty much everyone in this trite story.
Where Guy Maddin has used the conventions of silent film to create something unique, new and wonderfully wacky, Hazanavicius uses the genre as a gimmick to awe the masses. The Artist might be a gorgeous-looking film. It is foremost an exercise in futility.
The Artist | Directed by Michel Hazanavicius (France, Belgium 2011) with Jean Dujardin, John Goodman. Starts January 26.