A silent movie about silent movies, The Artist is the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a charming, suave 1920/30s Hollywood star, and his life through the end of the silent movie genre, the rise of the “talkie” and his relationship with starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo).
The Artist is certainly interesting, its main hook being its quirky nature in modern cinema. Few go in for silent films anymore, and The Artist is more focused on being a homage to that specific art form itself rather than being that artwork. Director Michael Hazanavicius is clearly knowledgeable about the genre, and it all feels very authentic, very “silent”, as if you are watching something in a 1920’s movie theatre. It cannot be denied that it is its silent nature that is The Artist’s big selling point, and that it pulls off very well.
With precious little dialogue, The Artist has to find its acting chops through emotive expression and body language, and here it also succeeds. Dujardin and Bejo are to be commended for their powerful performances, as you are never in any real doubt as to the tone of a scene, the direction that a conversation is going. The two leads are able to tell the audience everything they need to know in a specific moment with the look on their faces and that is to be applauded.
It’s a silent movie, so the music must do its part to set the scene, convey emotion, and in this, Ludovic Bourse has done a great job, with a score that remains subtle when it has to be and noticeable when required, capturing a part of the 1920’s movie scene and California living in music form.
But The Artist has plenty of flaws as well. The cast, aside from the leading two does only an average job, largely due to a lack of screen time: James Cromwell’s valet and John Goodman’s studio executive being the only other characters of note, and they fail to really shine with what little they have to do.
The plot is extremely predictable and uninspiring overall: one only has to see an early scene where Valentin derides the introduction of the “talkie” to see where it is all going. Nothing really comes as a surprise all the way up to the ending and the actual characters, while acted well, are as two dimensional as you like. If being judged purely on the merits of its plot, The Artist would be rated as distinctly average.
The Artist varies between obvious and confusing in its allegory and symbolism throughout. The worst example is probably Valentin watching his movie persona get sucked into a pit of quicksand as his self-produced silent film crashes and burns, gazing wistfully at the poor crowd in the theatre. Its very groan inducing at times and you feel the urge to say “We get it”. That is, until you see scenes like an early dream sequence and a later conversation with a police officer which may leave you with the urge to say “Huh?”, as you wonder just what the hell is going on. The director weaves from spelling it out to expecting you to go along with it.
In the end, if it was not a silent movie, it would be a nothing film, which is why I must rate it somewhat negatively. The whole draw, hook and point is that it is a silent movie, and it comes to rely on that quirk over good plot and decent characters. The performances of the two leads and the soundtrack save it, and it is worth a look, but The Artist is not, in my opinion, the masterpiece it is being made out to be.