I guess I had a built in resentment towards The Artist. The intellectual side of me said that there was a definite reason why silent films gave way to ‘talkies’ so many years ago. People prefer to listen rather than read or even imagine . It is still true today, as films that require you to read subtitles are not always a first choice of the movie going public.
In my own experience (referencing the change over from silent films to talkies – as an example, I preferred the Laurel & Hardy short comedy reels with spoken dialogues to the silent Charlie Chaplins. Of course my experience with these comedies was through the medium of television rather than a movie house. I guess I felt that watching people emote and tell you how they felt through their facial expressions or body language was more work, which would require me to do more imagining, and they also denied me the beauty of the spoken words.
But silent films were made, exhibited, and enjoyed. Yet, they went away.
When I first heard of The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius, I immediately went in search of a trailer. The trailer showed me that the leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, along with the supporting players like Penelope Ann Miller, John Goodman, and James Cromwell – all looked good, and that there was a certain joy to them despite the fact that Dujardin’s role was that of George Valentin, a silent films movie star, whose career would hit the skids with the advent of talkies. Not because he wasn’t talented, but instead, because he couldn’t see the future, and because of that he wouldn’t even try. As he said, ‘if this is the future, then you can have it‘.
In my mind, this was a variation of Singing in the Rain – the classic Hollywood musical. But it is not just that simple. This film was a period drama taking place in Hollywood the between the years 1927 and 1932. I wasn’t around in those days, but I know that in the contemporary times the Oscar voters love period pieces. I also resented that the NY Film Critics Circle came out very early and called The Artist their choice of Best Picture before they had even seen some other films that would also be called contenders for Best Picture.
Well yesterday I was in chilly Eastern Connecticut and today I am back home in chilly Sarasota, Florida. When the temps are in thirties and forties, and the beach isn’t an option, the locals flock to the movies. So today, finally, yours truly met … The Artist.
First the Pros:
The actors were just great. That would mean Dujardin, Bejo, Cromwell, Goodman, and Miller. Everyone else was either an extra, or had a one or two line role in which they likely said their lines aloud, but not so you could hear them. Dujardin had a glamourous look and feel to him when he was the brightest light in Hollywood; and when he fell to the depths of despair – he was the forgotten man – and it was written all over his face. But he didn’t come off as overdone or ‘theatrical’. He seemed the real thing. I actually loved and appreciated his performance.
Berenice Bejo was the girl who accidentally met (bumped into him at the premier) Dujardin’s George Valentin. She carried off the innocent ingenue briefly and superbly. But at an audition, when the Assistant Director called for girls who could dance, she was so good , she was hired on the spot. Once she got her foot in the door, her roles grew in size, and name kept rising higher and higher in the cast list. She had stardom written all over her.
Goodman was the studio head and he wore a three piece suit throughout and had the ever-ready cigar always in hand but usually not lit. This was a role that most likely would have gone to Edward Arnold in the late 30’s and 40’s. Goodman has a great face and was the perfect choice for the role. He’s portly, had jowls, and smiled easily and wonderfully.
Cromwell was first the chauffeur to Dujardin’s Valentin, then later to Bejo’s Peppy Miller. He was always ready to serve and he had the presence necessary for a servant yet he was no mere hired hand. He was more than just a chauffeur because he was loyal – actually so loyal and devoted that it seemed beyond what could have been expected or believed.
Penelope Ann Miller had the one major role – the embittered wife – that garnered her no sympathy and it was virtually guaranteed that no one would like her. She did her best in what was really drawn as just a narrowly defined character.
Then there was a great dog – a small Jack Russell terrier. He was adorable, but he got too much screen-time. After a point I felt a bit annoyed about seeing him in yet another scene. But he did turn out to be a man’s best friend. On the other hand, it couldn’t have gone any other way in that regard.
And that readers, are all the highlights (Pros) we have for you.
On the flip side of that coin are the Cons:
The story was weak – we’ve seen it before: Singing in the Rain, A Star is Born, and All About Eve, all contributed something to this story. It was predictable. As one star rises, another falls. Someone will hit bottom before they’re saved, and yes, there will be a redemption to close it all out. Check, check, and check. Got ’em all.
The Music became annoying as well as not quite succeeding. I know I was trying my best to not let it intrude.
The film likely did not have a huge budget (the estimate was 12 million)- even Valentin’s home before his fall, or Peppy Miller’s after she attained stardom were just glimpsed at. We saw elegant exteriors but not much more than one room at a time after that. There was one nice car. But aside from the opening night premier there really wasn’t a lot of glamour to the film.
Finally there’s the question of whether or not the b&w and the silent film were just gimmicks to get you to watch the film. Yes, I believe so. They did a pretty good job of creating a film that had enough of a curiosity factor to it, for it to look and feel interesting. And because of the way the performers did their roles, I’d have to say that they were pretty darned good. So in total, the film was worth seeing.
But Best Picture of the Year? Not on my ballot – um – my imaginary ballot. It was a gimmicky curiosity, and it was done well, and that’s all you need to say. The clinching argument is this – if another piece of news reaches you and says that there’s another silent film being released shortly – I’m fairly certain that it WON’T generate the same kind of interest, respect, or make you feel that it is award-worthy. Beyond that, my best guess, due to the lack of novelty, is that hordes of folks will not be rushing out to see it.
As for the rating: I’ll go as high as three point seven five. But no higher. Great acting by the five principals. Over done music – and too much of the cute doggie. As for the b&w and silent film style – with a better story I could have gone as high as a four.
You may read all of my columns, posts, and articles at my website: The Arts