||''I don't care about my reputation. People thought of me as a pasticheur but I'm also co-author of a documentary about genocide in Rwanda. I'm not this Neanderthal guy who just makes a good show – although that is difficult enough. I only have one obsession – not to be boring.''
Director Michel Hazanavicius
"To be boring..." This was Kubrick's ultimate sin so Hazanavicius is in good company. The Artist is not boring (even saying that now after the tsunami of journalistic amour feels like I just peed on the Bible) but neither is it a startling cinematic revelation that, inexplicably, has had more friendly press than Champagne grapes. Is it in terribly bad taste to say anything about The Artist that isn't tinged with angelic light accompanied by an orchestral fanfare of sublime emotional intensity? Let's (please) let the truth get in the way of a good story. I'm reacting to the reaction not the work itself. So as The Artist places itself in a good but unlikely position to snatch the first ever Best Film Oscar for a French film (Mince alors, could it possibly be vrai?), let's see (and hear despite the silence) what we're dealing with. First off, no question that this movie lives and breathes much more successfully on the big screen so seek it out there rather than wait until a disc diminishes its effect, that is if you're still enthusiastic to do so after the following (oooh, dissension!).
The Artist is a silent film of sorts. It's fully scored and sound is used almost as a special effect (and curiously we buy its loud surprise each time it invades the silence). It's as if we have primal movie DNA that still responds to the feel of 'silent film'. It is, without question, a charming piece of work with likeable performances, steadfast direction and some telling moments of humour almost all based on the peculiarities of the format of the silent film. Remember, before The Jazz Singer silent movies were called, uh, 'movies'. As the idea of reducing the norm to zero so even a number one registers, so Hazanavicius gets away with quite a few crowd pleasing gags which in the context of a 'normal' movie would be at best hopelessly twee and at worst the very rank end of cheesy. I mean take the dog (please)... I'm a dog lover but there is a difference between a dog as a film character and a well trained canid captured on film. I need to get over this but 2012 audiences are laughing at a dog trained to play dead. What on Earth am I missing? Is Beadle still about? Let's not forget the movie that took all the plaudits last year was about a man with a speech impediment. Maybe The King's Speech has started a 'speech problem' trend?
Compare this 'lowering expectations' idea with Lisabeth Salander's regard for the human male and her relationship with Blomkvist in Dragon Tattoo, both versions. A 'one' on her profoundly low scale of behaviour in a man can feel like a narrative explosion of joy. Lower the bar and the ordinary becomes heightened just like our senses in 2012 applied to a 'silent' movie. Of course The Artist is a very knowing silent movie and of the eighty-five traps Hazanavicius could have fallen into (smart-arsery covering about half of those), he managed to avoid them all. Apparently Harvey Weinstein put his considerable marketing muscle behind the movie because it reminded him about what he loved about the movies in the first place. But there are other considerations to be taken into account when making movies. Firstly, The Artist could have comfortably fit inside Singin' In The Rain (thematically and narratively), a lucky chromosome in the Gene Kelly pool and in comparison, it pales as most films must do against that assured Hollywood classic. There are no secrets hidden in the puffery of The Artists' media onslaught either. Allusions to known silent classics and famous talkies are given up as if this interview practice raises the movie's profile rather than reminding us all how good the original inspirations actually were. The leads actually trained to dance on the Singin' In The Rain stages. Isn't this a little too revealing?
It staggered me that the most dramatic section of the film is played out almost entirely with Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's Vertigo. This really isn't homage, respect or even borrowing. It's almost tantamount to stealing and has all the artistic cachet of a home movie made bearable by a Beatles track that no home owner could afford the rights to licence. I'm on the fence regarding the trades' spat between Vertigo actress Kim Novak and Hazanavicius over the use of the score but it does something the original score could never do – it takes you out of the movie and puts you in Vertigo wondering what happened to Jimmy Stewart and the Golden Gate Bridge – not the effect intended I'm sure. It's just too famous a piece of music. Try making a crime movie and scoring it with Nino Rota's main theme to The Godfather and see how the critics line up to tell you "Great homage, Mr/Ms Director. You really nailed that with respect..."
I think not.
And then there are the characters. I'm afraid I cared not one whit for any of them. It's a Soufflé technique brilliantly done but its emotional representation is so black and white you almost expect a card to come up and say "You can either love me or hate me." Just because your mise-en-scene is a 4x3 box and your colour palette is calibrated in shades of grey, doesn't mean you have to skimp on the subtext. George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) is a pompous, narcissistic ass with a practised, plastic grin whose self-esteem is so fragile, he'll put a gun in his mouth if someone doesn't walk past him genuflecting. Ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is an up and coming Eve (see the wonderful All About Eponymous) whose sound success eclipses the silent movie star as he descends into penury and despair. Her love saves him and in the immortal words of Private Eye, er, that's it. Doing their bit for the American craft are John Goodman as the clichéd über-producer (my, has that man lost some poundage. I had to blink a few times to recognise him) and James Cromwell as the loyal manservant. Malcolm McDowell pops up in a cameo and while these roles are supporting, they do remind you we're not watching a 20's movie however hard the film apes the style at the time. Now I'm not criticising for the sake of criticism – and this is no backlash because I can honestly say I enjoyed the film – but I felt it was worth getting something out there in the name of balance just before this Sunday's Hollywood Love In. After the British Academy inexplicably awarded this odd little 'novelty hit' (thank you Sight and Sound) Best Film, Screenplay (!!!), Direction, Lead Actor, Costumes, Music and Cinematography, I felt I should at least stand up and say "Uh, hang on..."
Uh, hang on.
The relationship between American and French cinema is an odd one – bitter enemies both secretly in love with the cool only their adversary can bestow on the other. The Artist is an adoring love letter to a stunted Golden Age of American artistry dashed by the coming of sound. It is a light confection with no apparent ulterior motive. Its innocence is a great strength but not one that should thrust it above other films simply because of its (granted, brave) novelty of being a silent film. It's almost as if the world's critics cannot believe a silent film could possibly compete in today's market and, out of sheer numbed shock, they have elevated it above far more deserving work. But people are loving it, you say. And now I just sound like a curmudgeon. Can it be that I can't wait for Transformers IV?