The Artist – Review

The Artist – Review

Review by FilmFellaHenry – 7.9/10

Screenwriter David Mamet once said ‘a good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.’ In other words, an effective story need not rely on verbal plot indicators, instead using body language and camera technique to convey a narrative.

This is what director Michel Hazanavicius has set out to do with The Artist, a film that recreates the physical drama of an early 20th century silent movie. Set in 1927, popular Hollywood actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) becomes spurned by the studio system as ‘talkies’ begin to replace silent cinema. Unable to adapt to this new innovation, Valentin’s life spirals into depression, obscurity and finally destitution. Although he shuns those closest to him, rising talkie starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) refuses to give up on her one-time idol, determined to restore Valentin to his previous glory.

Creating a silent black and white movie in today’s fast-editing, CGI obsessed movie culture is an audacious move and one to be commended. The wisdom of Mamet’s comment on dialogue is lost on the majority of contemporary films, with their over-reliance on verbal exposition and the multitude of extraneous speech that somehow escapes the cutting room floor. The Artist is a refreshing change to the norm, reminding modern audiences that stories can be just as effective without the luxuries of speech and foley sound.

With every advance in technology, cinema as an entity becomes more and more complex, able to utilise an increasing number of tools to perform what in essence is a simple task: relate a narrative. As a result, audiences become spoilt, expecting some new trick or device to further increase their immersion into a film. Whether it’s the jump to Technicolour, computer enhanced images, or Real D, the effect is just the same: audiences are temporarily wowed by the new innovation and dismiss what they were previously content with as old hat.

The Artist directly challenges this convention simply by being released, as it dares the audience to enjoy what they once shunned. The performances by Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo help achieve this aim with great panache, dextrously flipping between moments of subtlety to full blown vaudeville indulgence. From the numerous comedic moments to key emotional scenes, both display an effective on-screen magnetism that in many ways would have been spoilt by the interference of dialogue. Supporting characters like the cigar puffing producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), Valentin’s enduring butler Clifton (James Cromwell) and dare I say it, Valentin’s dog (Uggie) round off a character drama that has both heart and meaning.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention where I felt The Artist has slipped up. Michel Hazanavicius clearly wanted to create a homage to a forgotten era of cinema history, but there is also a desire to approach it in a reflexive, self-referential manner (for example, Valentin experiences a dream sequence where he is introduced to foley sound for the first time and becomes completely unnerved). Personally, I felt Hazanavicius should have picked one or the other, as a mixture of the two result in both ideas becoming compromised. The period authenticity of The Artist suffers from the above scene, not to mention the over flamboyant cinematography for a film made in that era. In contrast, if the film was meant to be a study of how talkies condemned the existing movie stars of the time, then it simply did not have enough of that element. The uncomplicated, classic narrative would have only worked with a straight ‘20’s homage; in this post-modern hybrid it came across as too simplistic and ultimately lacking.

Despite that, The Artist is still both a relevant and entertaining watch. It boasts some fabulous performances backed by Hazanavicius’ strong direction, complimented with Ludovic Bource’s charming and appropriate score. It reminds us that even such a basic tool as dialogue is not always necessary and should never be relied upon. And it may even prompt a silent movie revival (if we’re lucky). So all in all, a good end to 2011.

Review written by @filmfellahenry


About filmfellahenry
Film reviewer, script writer and occasional painter. Fan of Lumet, Aronofsky and Kubrick, with a good measure of early John Carpenter thrown in. Particularly like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror and fantasy film genres.

7 Responses to The Artist – Review

  1. Chris Lazo says:

    Good review! im hoping to catch this one at some point

    • The FilmFellas says:

      Definitely one to see at the cinema – it’s still on at Cardiff, but I’d catch it quick as art house flicks usually only have a limited run.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. conordcfc says:

    Nice review, I think ours strike on similar points, but I enjoyed the read! Take a look at mine when you have the chance! Cheers:

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks for the comments Conord. I checked out your review: glad you mentioned the talents of Uggie the dog too and I will also be checking out OSS 117 – sounds promising!

      If you’re in the mood for other silent movies, then I would recommend both Faust and Dante’s Inferno (or L’inferno): the latter is an incredible feat of filmmaking considering it was released in 2011.


  3. FilmfellaDarren says:

    I enjoyed reading your review Henry and you articulate your criticism of the film well. I have to say I disagree with the criticism though. The film has been met with universal acclaim – but I can see some problems with it, but the scene you considered to be a flaw I viewed as one of the best scenes in the film. My problem with the film generally is that it is completely predictable. Sure, you are limited with what you can do with a silent film, but it is predictable, because that story of washed-up actor has been done so many times before. The story here is unbelievably similar to Singin’ in the rain’ and Sunset Boulevard; it even resembles The Wrestler at times. The lead actor is charming, but I found myself waiting for his inevitable descent into darkness and actually, given how he seems in contempt of his wife and as he makes no attempt to adapt and falls into self-pity far too willingly, he is quite unlikeable and sympathetic. If this was an entirely straight 20’s silent movie homage, it would have been unforgivably derivative. What made the film lively, charming and beguiling for me was the post-modern touches and the ingenious little techniques. That scene where the silent actor realized the dawning of the age of sound, was deeply intense as, as there wasn’t any sound prior to it, your attention was drawn to incidental sound which gives the film a sudden nightmarish feel which totally captured how overwhelmed the actor must have felt. It was that playful, knowing, arch tone in a film that does look like an authentic silent film that made the style fresh. I liked the film, although, I think it would have been better to have discovered it as a an indie sleeper hit. Now that it has crossed over to a mainstream audience and is the fairytale everyone is talking about, it comes with a considerable amount of hype that isn’t entirely justified. Personally, I wouldn’t give it the best Oscar and if the Academy do, it will be a decision made entirely on the romance of a little b/w silent film making it big in modern cinema.

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks for the comments Darren. Although you say you disagree with my criticism, I’m not actually sure you do…

      Basically, you disliked the predictable and unoriginal storyline, while enjoying the post modern reflexive elements. In this I completely agree. The self referential themes and post modern moments would have worked really well, if it had a suitably intricate/original story to accompany it. Similarly, the generic traditional story would have been fine, if it had scrapped the post modern elements and tried to be a pure homage film.

      I think what I was trying to say is that there are two films here: one a homage, the other a statement on that particular era. However by blending the two, both end up compromised to an extent. It is in this context that I see the introduction of foley sound scene as compromising a strict homage – in a post modern setting however, it really works. And that’s the fundamental problem: The Artist just doesn’t know which style to stick to.

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