This controversial Best Picture winner is a silent movie about the transition to sound. Jean Dujardin is on top of the world as a Valentino/Fairbanks/Gilbert type (with cute dog) but talkies send him into a downward spiral. Can he recover?
With fans like these…
When I heard about The Artist, I was pretty excited. A new silent movie from a French crew being filmed in the Los Angeles area? Yes, please! I was unprepared for the film’s popularity and the eventual backlash against it and we’ll be discussing that in a bit but let’s cover a few basics about the picture first.
Set during the transition to sound, The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an onscreen romancer without equal. He has a dog who loves him (Uggie), a chauffeur who will do anything for him (James Cromwell), and a wife who hates him (Penelope Ann Miller). One of his biggest fans is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a Hollywood up-and-comer who embraces sound with all appendages.
His career unravelling due to his refusal to make a talkie, Valentin’s professional struggles are mirrored in his private life. His do-or-die silent epic bombs, he loses everything and is on the verge of a complete breakdown. Will Peppy be able to save him from himself?
It’s all very old school. A dash of A Star is Born, a sprinkle of Hollywood Cavalcade, a nod to John Gilbert, a salute to Douglas Fairbanks. Dujardin is a delight and takes to pantomime like a duck to water, his performance aided by his old-fashioned good looks and his megawatt smile. Of the supporting cast, Miller steals the show with her deadpan snottiness as Valentin’s contemptuous spouse, Cromwell (a real-life scion of old Hollywood) exudes dignity as Valentin’s last loyal friend and little Uggie is a charmer. (What Jack Russell isn’t?) Bejo plays her part a bit too broadly but not badly enough to cause a distraction. The real Los Angeles setting adds just the right touch of authenticity and, generally, a good time is had by all.
That’s not to say that the picture is flawless. It’s just that, well, there are issues with criticizing it. You see, there are people who hate The Artist with the heat of a thousand suns and I am not exaggerating.
The sheer vitriol heaped on the film (I call it The Artist Derangement Syndrome or TADS) makes it all but impossible to have a calm and rational discussion about the film’s pros and cons. If people are screaming and hollering about how they hate, hate, hate a particular film, it’s difficult to slide in and talk about the intricacies of title card usage.
The Artist is not a perfect film by any means but when any mild criticism means triggering a flood of bile, one hesitates to discuss its flaws.
While I generally have a positive view of the film, there are issues. I wish Valentin’s reasons for refusing to embrace sound had been communicated a bit more clearly. I wish that the film had not cheated by using a “Bang!” title card during a certain important scene. I wish the film had done a better job of portraying Valentin’s eventual evolution into a star of a dance picture. I wish the score had not relied on licensing the music of Vertigo and stuck to original compositions.
These are problems, yes, but not a single one makes The Artist worthy of outright hatred. A mild “meh” seems more appropriate. You don’t have to love the picture or even like it but let’s keep reactions in proportion, shall we?
The Fandom Strikes Back
In my experience, it seems that silent movie fans are split on The Artist. Some love it but many hate it and will spend just hours ranting about it.
And this is where I think I differ from many silent movie fans. You see, I was familiar with Michel Hazanavicius, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo from the OSS 117 films. They are broad, bawdy farces that poke fun at sixties spy films and can be best compared to Airplane! or The Naked Gun series. They’re not to my taste at all but I did notice Dujardin’s perfect vintage looks and mannerisms and so when I heard that the OSS 117 team was making a silent film, I was pretty psyched.
It’s all a matter of expectations and I expected exactly what the film delivered: The Artist was meant to be a warm tribute to silent and classic Hollywood. I’m sure the filmmakers were hoping for recognition but they never claimed the picture was something it wasn’t. If you buy a Mack Sennett film, don’t come crying to me because it contains broad acting, Bathing Beauties and mud fights. I am very curious to know exactly which elements of OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies led these people to believe that the same film crew would be making Stella Maris or The Crowd or City Lights even if The Artist is paying tribute to some of these films.
Few silent films are made today and I think some fans may have their hopes up and built the ideal silent film in their heads. When The Artist couldn’t deliver on these dreams, the reaction was anger. I have also heard people describe the backlash as a reaction to fawning early reviews. But then it’s not really about the film itself, now is it?
Is all criticism of The Artist due to shattered dreams of a silent film revival and/or the perfect silent film? Of course not. As I stated above, the film has areas that deserve criticism. But I do think some of the more emotional negative responses—the TADS sufferers—are about more than just what appears on the screen.
Backlash and Melodrama
The mainstream critical backlash against The Artist was swift and ruthless. A film that had been hailed and feted was now dismissed as “cutesy” and “pointless.” These critics certainly have the right to their opinions (she said graciously) but I dare say that there is more to this than meets the eye. Comedies in general and romantic comedies in particular have a hard time during awards season. There are a few outliers, of course, but the fact is that big awards tend to go to heavy dramas teeming with Oscar bait. You know, crusading nun whose daughter was eaten by dingoes becomes lawyer and sues so that the drinking water will be safe and her adopted son can play football but then she becomes a serial killer and dies of cancer at the end. Based on a true story.
The problem with the critical backlash is that there is no consensus as to which movie actually deserved the statuette. Oh, everyone has a pick but it’s not like there was a Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction or Bonnie and Clyde waiting in the wings. I would be more understanding if, say, War Horse had a huge groundswell of support just before the 2012 Oscars. Hugo was probably The Artist‘s closest rival but it is not without its own flaws. (It could lose about 40 minutes for a start.)
Look, I think the best picture award is stupid. Some years have dozens of amazing films, some years have none at all and yet there is only one award for every single year. But you know what? I don’t make the rules and this isn’t the Nobel Peace Prize. The best picture award must be given and it goes to what is generally voted to be the best of what is available. The Artist only won because it was a weak year? Maybe. But then it deserved to win, didn’t it? And, just for the record, I think that arguing about the Oscars is a pointless activity in light of the fact that a significant number of the voters do not (and are under no real obligation to) watch the movies they vote for and against. The Academy is reportedly modifying its membership rules but it remains to be seen if this will help make the awards less silly and tone-deaf.
At the time, L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote eloquently about the dismissive attitude that had become stylish:
…today’s Oscar voters frequently skirt the parallel danger of disregarding sophisticated and intelligent entertainments, considering them to be not as worthy of the best picture Oscar as more ostentatious, pretentious fare. Maybe you think every movie these days accomplishes what “The Artist” does. If you do, call to mind what you’ve seen in the past year, and think again.
Many negative opinions about the film have nothing to do with what appears on the screen and everything to do with what was perceived as an aggressive campaign to woo Academy voters. It seems to me that the venom is misdirected as the main target should be the ridiculous Oscar nomination and voting process. I find it odd that we are constantly told to just appreciate films as films and ignore the peccadilloes of stars and directors but that obnoxious campaigning from the film’s American distributor forever taints The Artist. Mm-hmm. Sure.
Wait a second… rape?
The hype surrounding The Artist took a strange turn when Kim Novak, star of Vertigo, purchased a full page ad in Variety declaring that “I want to report a rape. I feel as if my body — or, at least my body of work — has been violated by the movie, The Artist.”
Oh good lord. So, obtaining legal permission and paying to use part of the score (which she did not write) of one film she appeared in has violated an actress’s entire body of work. And warrants a CAPS LOCK RANT? Got it. I didn’t notice Mary Pickford’s heirs claiming that she was raped when Bejo lifted the coat-hug scene from Stella Maris. I didn’t see Douglas Fairbanks’ grandchildren taking out an ad claiming he was raped when The Artist used clips from The Mark of Zorro.
The ad was met with universal consternation (believe it or not, movie music has been licensed before) and a general sentiment of “Well, that escalated quickly.” The best response can be found on The AV Club. The highlights:
…the word “rape” continues to evolve from a word meaning “violent, forced sexual intercourse” to its more modern definition as “something kind of upsetting that happens to famous people.”
Novak then urged the industry to take back the night and vigilantly “safeguard our special bodies of work for posterity,” perhaps by teaching our classic movies self-defense strategies or arming them with whistles. “Are you sure you want to go with the word ‘rape’ here, Kim? Seems a little needlessly hyperbolic and insensitive,” Ms. Novak’s publicist said to himself while safely out of earshot, to avoid raping her with constructive criticism.
Look, I understand where Hazanavicius was coming from. He wanted The Artist to be a love letter to all of classic Hollywood. For the record, I don’t agree with his decision to use the Vertigo score so extensively but it doesn’t damage the original in any way. I dare say that Vertigo fans will remain Vertigo fans after seeing The Artist. (Incidentally, Hazanavicius responded to the advertisement in a kind and tasteful manner. A true gentleman, it seems.)
The scores of famous films are often lifted, licensed and repurposed for other movies. Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, Chariots of Fire, Saturday Night Fever, Ben Hur, Casablanca, The Lion King… All these films have had music and, at times, entire scenes lifted. (Heck, the scores for Waterworld and Dragonheart are more famous as soundtracks for other movies’ trailers! I await comment from Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid.) And these borrowings are often for parody which, to my mind, is more “damaging” to the original’s dignity than a well-meaning homage. And yet these films survive. Fancy that. (Speaking of Casablanca, I wonder if the cast of Everybody’s Welcome, the 1931 musical in which the song As Time Goes By first appeared, accused Warner Brothers of raping them by repurposing part of the play’s score. Just curious.)
Never fear! The pedantic blatherskites are here!
A good number of complaints from silent movie fans involve charges that The Artist is not (gasp!) 100% accurate.
Historical inaccuracies? In a movie? Surely you jest! Regarding inaccuracies in hair and costumes, I think it is best for us to remember that historical fashions of the stage and screen are meant to create a look and feel, an atmosphere. They are not meant to be museum replicas, especially when absolute authenticity would distract the general audience.
I mean, we obviously don’t want to see blue jeans at Thermopylae but let’s keep things in perspective. Let me put this another way: I could sit and point out all the fashion inaccuracies in Some Like it Hot but I would kind of be missing the point of the film, wouldn’t I? And unlike, say, Singin’ in the Rain, the inaccuracies of The Artist are unlikely to damage a viewer’s perception of the silent era and the art of silent film. Chillax, dudes.
A gatekeeper is someone who takes it upon themselves to define “real” fans of a particular form of entertainment. The term is most often associated with geek interests but any fandom is susceptible.
One of my biggest issue with people who display blinding hatred for The Artist is that some of them use it as a kind of test to determine the worthiness of silent movie fans. For example, this person invaded a discussion about Ben-Hur (1959) and suddenly hurled what he or she clearly thought was an earth-shattering accusation at me. “You, madam, love The Artist.”
Well, that was random and had nothing to do with the subject being discussed. I think this was intended as an insult along these lines: All you know about silent movies, you got from The Artist. You only started liking silent movies because of The Artist. You are not a real silent movie fan. (And, needless to say, The Artist is hardly responsible for the death of silent cinema.)
Now such insults are obviously bunk but it set me thinking. I loved silent movies for a decade before The Artist was released but suppose I did fall in love with them due to that film?
In two words: So what?
It doesn’t matter how a fan discovers something. What matters is that they discovered it and joined the informal club. If The Artist accomplished that (and I know several people who had this experience with the film) then bully for the film and the fans! A silent movie fan is no less worthy just because they discover a beautiful art through a mainstream-ish film. These fans are not diluting the silent movie love, they’re helping to spread it. More fans mean a bigger market and that can mean more silent movies released. How is this a bad thing?
To love or not to love?
Am I saying that viewers are obligated to love The Artist? No, but criticism must be based on something concrete within the film itself or I cannot be expected to take it seriously. Complaining that the movie is light (it never claimed to be anything else), cute (ditto), was heavily marketed to Oscar voters (because it’s the only movie in the history of ever to be marketed to Oscar voters), or that it somehow made Kim Novak feel all sad (forgive me a cruel chuckle) doesn’t cut the mustard. It would be like me reviewing a Bruce Lee movie and being just so terribly angry at the amount of kicking and punching. Um, yeah.
I’m not saying that audience expectations, awards season jockeying and other background information is verboten in a review. What I am saying is that I would kind of like to talk about the film itself at some point. You know, the stuff that actually appears on the screen. Look at this review, for heaven’s sake! I’ve spent twice as much time responding to all sorts of weirdness as I have discussing the film.
And as for using it as a cudgel to attack silent movie fans, well, all I have to say is that I feel very sorry for men who decide to do this. (And it is almost always a man who pulls this nonsense.) What a sad way to spend one’s time. Gatekeepers are the bane of any fandom and I don’t like to see them cropping up around silent cinema. There aren’t that many silent movie fans to begin with!
A silent movie fan who was introduced thanks to The Artist is just as true a fan as someone who was weaned on Chaplin, Keaton and von Stroheim. To be a silent movie fan, you just have to like at least one silent film; any other restrictions are bunk and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Gatekeepers do not own silent cinema (thank heaven) and they need to step out of the way and stop making asses of themselves. Silent movie fans are coming through and some of them happen to like The Artist.
Is The Artist a masterpiece? No, it’s not but it is a cute tribute to silent Hollywood. It does exactly what it sets out to do and it does so with considerable charm. I enjoyed it and accepted it in the spirit it was presented but it’s not in my top ten of all time.
Like it or dislike it as you choose but I do wish the more impassioned critics would tone down the fire-breathing hatred. The Artist and its cast and crew do not deserve it. I guess my final thought is to urge calm. Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show movie, I should really just relax.” Disliking a movie is one thing. Acting as though no one has a right to like it is something else entirely.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Artist is available on DVD, Bluray and via streaming.