REVIEW: 'The Artist'


How much do you love movies? That’s probably the question you should be asking yourself going into a screening of The Artist. It’s not a guarantee, but I think a viewer’s enjoyment of The Artist goes up in relation to how much of a movie buff they are. Why? Because The Artist is one of two films of the past year (the other being Scorcese’s Hugo) that are devoted to the art of moviemaking.

I wouldn’t want to scare away anyone who just wants to see a good movie, so let me say this as well: The Artist is a delight. From opening frame to closing credits, this movie is an absolute pleasure to watch. It combines star-making performances with cheeky references to silent films of old, leaving you with one of the best motion pictures of the year.

Imagine an old-fashioned movie trailer. Art Deco inter-titles set the scene: Our hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a successful silent film star in 1927 Hollywood. He’s the darling of the studio, but not without some trouble at home; he neglects his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) by catching the eye of an up-and-coming starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).

Valentin soon realizes the studio - and Hollywood in general - is keen to get into talking pictures. The new productions find their poster girl in Peppy Miller, and Valentin’s pride leads him to be outmoded by the newer actors who are willing to embrace sound. Valentin must figure out if there’s any life for him in Hollywood anymore, or even a life worth living at all.

The buzzwords associated with The Artist going into the Oscars (where it’s nominated in ten categories) are that it’s a “silent” film shot in “black and white”. I’m not implying that those are incorrect labels, but it seems like too many people are focusing on the medium rather than the story. The Artist isn’t just an exercise in proving that silent films are still cool – it’s a beautiful tale to boot.

George Valentin’s hubris is frustrating and touching. Here is a character who begins the movie at the top of the A-list, playing to cheering crowds in movie palaces. He has the studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) under his thumb. In a development that reminded me of the current push behind stereoscopic 3D, Zimmer's studio wants to start making talkies, and Valentin laughs them off. I almost expected an inter-title that read, “Uh-Oh!”.

I’m only familiar with Jean Dujardin’s work from the trailers I’ve seen for his OSS 117 films (think a French James Bond with an extra dose of Austin Powers-esque comedy). Nevertheless, when Dujardin smiles, I smiled with him. His charm is seductive. Because of that connection, I felt like yelling at the screen to get Valentin to smarten up and see his mistake. The most magical part was how The Artist was able to involve me in the story without sound or colour – just like motion pictures used to.

Bérénice Bejo is instantly believable as the spunky starlet who carves out a career for herself at the studio. Bejo has that classic Hollywood beauty that just fits. Her character Peppy, meanwhile, fills the role at the studio vacated by Valentin. She’s one of a few young actors who see sound as a way to make themselves known in a competitive business. Nevertheless, she and Valentin start to fall in love, making their duelling careers a sore point in their relationship.

Director Michel Hazanavicius would have you believe he’s been helming these silent films his whole career. Instead, he and Dujardin are reunited here after working on those kooky OSS 117 films together.  Indeed, apart from the clarity of the print and two very clever uses of sound, you’d swear The Artist was made in the 1920s.

As much as I would like people to focus on the story and forget about how The Artist is a silent film, the movie itself doesn’t let you. It toys with the conventions of silent cinema, slipping in sly little references to film history here and there. For that, I credit Hazanavicius, who obviously knows that to play this movie dead serious would be a mistake, an insult to the intelligence of its audience. The self-awareness is a welcome addition, another layer to the experience of watching The Artist that makes it that much more entertaining.

Granted, the more you study up on classic film, the more fun you’ll have at The Artist. Honestly, I can’t think of a better reason to refresh your film “education” than to get more out of a new picture, and never has the proof been more obvious than with this movie.

At the screening I attended, the audience (in a simple downtown theatre) actually gave it a round of applause. I like to think it was as accurate a judgement as any star ranking a reviewer could give. Nevertheless, The Artist gets four stars out of four.

Have you seen The Artist yet? Is it one of those movies that’s on your list of must-sees before the Oscars? Or is the critical consensus on the film wrong? Did any of you dislike the film? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

If you liked this post, browse through my recent movie reviews by following the links below. If you’re new to Professionally Incoherent and you liked what you found, consider signing up for email updates via the widget in the right sidebar. Finally, you can find me on Twitter for updates about new posts and all manner of miscellany.

Recent Releases:

The Grey | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | A Matter of Taste | Margin Call

Reviews of Classic Movies:

Doctor Zhivago (1965) | Spellbound (1945) | The Graduate (1967)2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)