By Chris Exantus
It is hard to determine the quality of a movie in the absence of outside expectations, and such is the case of The Artist. Hype for this black and white silent film has reached astronomical levels, with many critics predicting it as a shoo-in for this year’s Best Picture award. Because of this, it is difficult to view the film objectively.
As director Michel Hazanavicius’ third feature film, as well as his third collaboration with French actor-comedian Jean Dujardin (OSS 117), The Artist is a silent film for a modern audience. It manages to be both exceedingly charming and incredibly reverential to movies — both silent and talkies — of the past. However, one has to wonder if there is any substance underneath this likable period film.
One of the main strengths of The Artist is the hilarious George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Unlike other protagonists in similar fare — Sunset Boulevard immediately comes to mind — Valentin is playful in his prime, rather than the borderline sociopathic and egoistic personality that tends to be featured in films about actors.
With his expressive face and impressive eyebrows, Dujardin paints himself as a tragic character instead of one that perpetuates his own demise at the hands of change. These changes come at the behest of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an up-and-coming actress trying to make it on the big screen. The attraction between the two characters is almost immediate, and Bejo is a magnificent presence in the film, bringing to mind the idealized appeal of actresses in the golden era of film.
Thanks to Hazanavicius’ keen directing and obvious love for silent flims, as well as Guillaume Schiffman’s wonderful cinematography, The Artist is a gorgeous film. It is a melding of old and new as Hazanavicius has fun playing with elements specific to the silent genre.
Despite that, the audience is never really able to get over how gimmicky the film is. While certainly effective throughout its runtime, The Artist feels more like an exercise in style rather than substance. Lacking the biting self-awareness of Black Dynamite or even the thoughtfulness of Martin Scorsese’s trip through an idealized era of filmmaking in Hugo, the premise of the dwindling status of an actor is not only familiar, it is also rather empty.
While the romance between Miller and Valentin is a delight — and an obvious nod to Hazanavicius’ own attempts at keeping classic filmmaking alive — there is no emotional pull, aside from being cute.
It is not necessarily a bad thing that The Artist is more of a crowd-pleaser than anything, allowing the silent film genre to become accessible to mainstream sensibilities once again. However, though you will leave the theater with a smile on your face, there is not much else to make The Artist anything more than merely a good film.