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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 8.11%
Average: 35.14%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

4 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Artist, The
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by Brett Gallman

"Popcorn art-house fare."
3 stars

There’s been a pretty good run of movies about movies here lately; “Hugo” has been called a “love letter to cinema” so many times that I was sure critics were going to begin donating postage stamps on Scorsese’s behalf. Even “My Week With Marilyn” fetishized our love for movies, funneling it through a slice of life in one of its premier fetish objects in Monroe. Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” is out of the same mold, and its appeal is rather obvious: it’s a silent movie set back during that golden age, a tactic that almost feels akin to someone ringing a Pavlovian bell for cinephilic nostalgia hounds.

More specifically, it’s set during the transition from the silent era to talkies and chronicles the career trajectories of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). The former is a Silent Hollywood king who plays to adoring crowds both on the screen and off of it; the latter is among a throng of his fans and ends up on the front page of Variety when she’s accidentally photographed next to Valentin. Suddenly, she’s “that girl” and exploits her newfound fame fully, eventually making the transition to sound films with ease; Valentin, on the other hand, dismisses talkies a gimmick, and is determined to cling to his fame by sinking his own fortune into an ill-fated production.

If we’re to judge “The Artist” by sheer replication alone, it does succeed in evoking the glamour of old Hollywood; I would stop short of saying it accurately replicates the silent form (its techniques, particularly the photography and the editing, give it too much of a modern sheen), but it does capture the glitz and glamour of those days, or at least how we recall those old days from other media (such as film). It’s at this point that I think you can see how “The Artist” is like a snake coiling around and eating its own tail, as it comes off as a replica of a replica. Even its basic frame story has an obvious reference point in “Singin’ in the Rain,” only the nostalgia that film evoked in the 50s would have been relevant and palatable to those audiences.

In 2012, the evocation isn’t as sharp, and “The Artist” sometimes smacks as a gloriously projected Golden Age fallacy, an attempt to recall a bygone era in its most distilled, celluloid form. By even taking on the silent form (albeit with those modern touches), it feels like Baudrillard’s simulacrum--this isn’t so much a replication of old Hollywood, but rather, a hyper-realized form that’s replaced the actual reference point. This is not to say it’s false--it simply is the perception we’re delivered, one we’re forced to accept, and it carries a certain wistfulness that runs counter to the apparent sadness at the center of the story.

We’re taken through some very dark times, such as the Stock Market crash and Valentin’s own alcohol-fuelled self-loathing that eventually leads to his life imitating the climaxes to one of his own films in another dizzying example of Hazanavicius’s fondness for self-refraction. However, none of it feels particularly perilous; this is a film that all but asks “remember the good old days?” from the opening frame, so you can hardly buy the heavier moments. After all, nobody ever asks you to sit down to reminisce about a story that ends in suicide.

This is tangential to the other problem lying at the center of “The Artist”: there’s practically no reason for the two leads to be kept apart like they are. You might guess that this is eventually a love story, but it’s one whose conflict is never apparent, unless we’re meant to believe that Peppy could never condescend to be with a failed star like Valentin (which is something that’s never even close to being hinted at--in fact, her adoration for him is quite obvious, rendering the middle act all the more befuddling). One might point to the fact that Valentin is married, but his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) is almost immediately positioned as a mere inconvenience, and she’s actually the one that boots him out when his fame begins to fade. So we’re left with two separate threads--one involving Peppy’s rise to fame, the other following Valentin on the way down, with the two only becoming entangled when it’s time for the movie to wrap up.

All of this is problematic, but Hazanavicius lays on the charm rather thickly, and his actors craft some indelible characters. From a pure enjoyment standpoint, watching both Dujardin and Bejo is a delight. Each perfectly portray that intangible Movie Star quality--I feel like each would be larger than life had they existed back then. Dujardin is seemingly made up to resemble Clark Gable, and he certainly carries that sort of swaggering persona. When he laughs off talkies, there’s little doubt that he’s confident in his own ability to beat back against the currents of change; in fact, he’s almost good enough to convince us that he’ll pull it off, even though we know better. He’s even accompanied by a cute dog to take the edge off of him and prevent him from strolling into smarmy territory.

Bejo needs no such help; she’s radiant from her first appearance and completely earns the name of Peppy as she glides across the screen with grace. She’s the type of girl that can make audiences swoon with a wink, and Peppy always retains that likable naivety even after becoming a star; this is probably another reason the central act and conflict doesn’t really work all that well--she’s never affected in any real, meaningful way. Peppy essentially just gains stardom, and we’re left to marvel at her rags-to-riches story while Valentin’s more interesting story unfolds.

Hazanavicius rounds out the cast with stalwarts such as James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, and John Goodman, with the latter being the most memorable as the gregarious studio producer. Goodman has the cigar-chomping fat cat routine down pat, and he may actually be the most fun to watch; he’s always been a fine comedic talent, and it’s fascinating to watch him translate his physicality over to the purely physical silent style. One scene sees his face swell with annoyance before giving way to that warm, inviting, John Goodman persona we all love after Peppy talks him into one of her schemes.

That might best encapsulate “The Artist”--it’s a movie that’s obviously irksome on some levels in its cannibalization (at one point, even the “Vertigo” score is swiped, much to the recent dismay of Kim Novak), but you’re eventually talked into its charms. “Charming” is probably the best word to describe it; Hazanavicius essentially clangs the dinner bell and hopes you won’t look too hard at what you’re eating. Once you do that, “The Artist” struggles to be anything more than a quaint jaunt back to yesteryear, a film that’s all form with little function beyond recalling old-fashioned razzmatazz.

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originally posted: 01/19/12 12:12:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/09/12 David Hollingsworth A film that sticks with you, way after the credits are over 5 stars
5/21/12 Colin Firth I wish I wasn't so all mighty graceless and could dance like Jean. 5 stars
5/17/12 Geraldine Fun and super enjoyable. 5 stars
4/05/12 Call me anytime I have to learn French Jean Dejardin I love you.. 5 stars
4/03/12 merp Quality filmmaking, interesting 4 stars
4/03/12 Lillian Gish Liked this movie on first viewing. Now thinking about it, I like it even more. 5 stars
3/26/12 Archie Leach A film that will stand the test of time. 5 stars
3/09/12 Suzz interesting film making, good performances but boring 3 stars
2/13/12 R.W. Welch A little slow in spots, but strong finale. Good score. B+ 4 stars
2/03/12 mr.mike It's best feature was in not taking itself too seriously. 4 stars
1/23/12 Peter Van Howe I saw this movie last night (Jan. 22, 12). I can't get it out of my head! Going again now! 5 stars
12/22/11 Isaac This movie was phenomenal. It will certainly win Best Picture this year at the Oscars. 5 stars
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  23-Nov-2011 (PG-13)
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