Film Reviews

The Artist Michel Hazanavicius

Rating - 7/10

The Artist, lovingly filmed in silent black and white, proves Michel Hazanavicius as bold a director as there is making films today.  Taking its story in large part from Singin' In The Rain, The Artist tells (or rather, shows) the growing romance between silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance) and talkie star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) between 1927 and 1932, when George goes from Hollywood’s largest star to obscurity as Miller’s career does the opposite. With such a plot, Hazanavicius’ stylistic choice is far from gimmicky, and inclusions of sound are timed perfectly with respect to the film’s comedy and charm. Both elements are beautifully given to the audience largely because of Dujardin’s excellent performance, in which reactions and, yes, dialogue, appear so sincere that he is able to effectively tell the story while restricting both the confusion that may come with a low number of intertitles and the distractions that come with too many of them. Dujardin’s performance, not the screenplay, is the biggest piece of evidence that a silent star—he plays one perfectly here—can survive in a world of talkies.

In the world of cinema today, 3D is growing in use, 35mm cameras are extinct, and nearly every movie will be digital within the next few years, so a silent movie is neither fun nor pretentious, it is relevant. Shooting Valentin’s world in silent black and white serves as a keen analogy to the constant changes that this medium is making, and so we are presented with a film equal parts relic of the lost and commentary on the nature of change. To maintain relevance, The Artist fills itself with clever tricks and references to make you think about its silence. In one scene, Valentin dreams of a sound world in which he still has no voice. In the opening scene, which takes place in a movie theater projecting a silent film, there is a heavy reliance on music that makes the abrupt ending of the film on the screen and the sudden silence of the accompanying orchestra catch you by surprise. The rest of the film is full of other equally clever though less jarring ways of proving that it is fully aware that it is existing in a world that left its type behind over 80 years ago. But it is precisely this self-awareness that prevents the film from taking itself too seriously and helps hold the focus on comedy. This is to Hazanavicius’ enormous credit, as the film is at its strongest when it makes us laugh.

Hazanavicius is no stranger to homage. He has previously teamed with Dujardin for the OSS 117 series, a spy spoof with references to both James Bond and Pink Panther films. And here he evokes again the strengths of his predecessors and inspiration relying heavily on melodrama and music to tell his story, just as Vidor, Dreyer, and Griffith did in their most memorable pictures. For the first half of the film, there is hardly a storytelling lull, and the movie runs as one of the most evenly paced and charming, adorable, yet brave films in years. But as the film begins to drift away from its comedy, so goes its charm, and its predictability becomes a bit too apparent as a result. When Valentin catches himself in a bad situation, his way out is improbable and yet the result seems to be the film’s climax, but instead his spiral downward grows increasingly depressing and climaxes yet again in the movie’s inappropriately dark penultimate scene. As such, The Artist runs too long, especially for a film without an antagonist; luckily, a feel-good ending keeps it in line and restores much of the charm that the excess run time was draining from it. Hazanavicius may have lost his way for a little while, and while the mistake is far from fatal, it turns a beautiful, socially conscious love letter to the cinema into a melodrama that happens to play like a movie from the 1920s, and the timing is so poor that by the time the movie can recover it is forced to conclude.

Fortunately, we have brilliant performances to keep us engaged through the cliché story that too quickly takes over. The entire cast, which exploits an advantage unique to silent film, includes actors of various nations, all of whom play their parts with a surprising amount of naturalism that creates an especially accessible silent film. Without a doubt, though, Dujardin is the strongest performer, and his screen time in comparison to everyone else’s shows that Hazanavicius is well aware of that. Dujardin’s comic timing and brilliant command of facial expressions are proof enough that he would have made a great silent film star, but the naturalism he displays in the most dramatic scenes highlight his incredible versatility, quite possibly the film’s saving grace.

Ultimately, most problems in the film are overshadowed by the sheer elegance of Hazanavicius’ message that does, despite a large scare, shine through. He has given us an old Hollywood movie that is so self-aware that it simultaneously serves as a love letter to the cinema and a message to anyone who has ever said that “they don’t make them like they used to.” They most certainly do, and that encompasses all the glory as well as all the pitfalls.


*The above text was all written in December, well before The Artist took gold or was even nominated for Oscars. Reading it now, I would not change a word of it to either champion its win or lash back against it, and I remain true to the words above. However, in light of its current win, I find it worth mentioning that its similarities with Hugo led some to start proclaiming that The Artist was simply "out with the old, in with the new" while Hugo is a study of the past's more pervasive influence. While this notion is credible, and I find Hugo to be the better movie, The Artist's form contrasts with this notion, and although Hugo is the more thematically complex movie, The Artist is more than just a time-lapsed gimmick.