Friday, 27 January 2012

“You need to have something no one else has…”

The Artist: directed and written by Michel Hazanavicius

“I’m not telling. I won’t talk!” The first title card of The Artist bears these words. By now even those marginally motivated cinephiles would know that The Artist Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film and one of the most lauded films of 2011. Let me give some perspective to the presentation of this bit of dialogue. We’re being introduced to our protagonist, but not to him really – it’s a film within a film we’re seeing – George Valentin’s latest silent film, “A Russian Affair”. Obviously, though, it’s a tongue-in-cheek bit of cuteness from Hazanavicius and a suggestion of what’s to come in the form of Valentin both deliberately on Hazanavicius as a bit of irony and in a more significant way, and one which I think escapes Hazanavicius. For, what The Artist is about is the fall from fame of Valentin – a moviestar whose position is displaced by the advent of talkies in cinema and simultaneously the rise of a young ingénue seemingly ready to take his place as the face of the movie studio he headlines. It’s a concept which has been tried – and tried excellently – in A Star is Born, Sunset Boulevard and I’m sure a slew others. So, I’m immediately intrigued by what Hazanavicius plans to do with the potential plot using the silent form. For, from the first few moments we realise that Jean Dujardin’s charming yet very exasperating Valentin is as assured of his entitlement to fame as Norma Dresmond and as dismissive of those around him as Norman Maine and my interest is piqued. How does Valentin become worthy of the title “The Artist”, I wonder.
The thing is he doesn’t. Not really. Not at all, even. Beginners, The Ides of March, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Beaver and particularly Moneyball, Drive and Rampart are seven films which sit comfortably along with The Artist as films which are difficult to extrapolate from the performance of their lead players Jean Dujardin (who holds the majority of scenes from the film on his shoulder) is surely to be trumpeted for her decisive performance. But, all his gusto can’t distract me from the thinness of the role he’s playing. Or, more accurately, the loose creation of the role seems at odds with the film it exists in. For, Hazanavicius’ creation (if it’s anything other a showcase for Dujardin, it’s a director’s film) plays up the joie-de-vivre of the world the characters inhabit, and Valentin’s carelessness and capricious meanness makes it difficult for him to coalesce with the world around him. In two scenes which mirror the stolidity of his words in the opening he’s urged to talk. The producer Al Zimmer is telling him that the silent craze is over. But, George will continue on his – “I don’t need you” is what he tells Zimmer. A few scenes later, sunk in a depression he refuses to talk. His exasperated wife tells him she’s unhappy. “So are millions of people.” And, immediately, it takes me out of the story.

In Young Adult Mavis Gary ends the film the same way she began. That film is a pessimistic outlook on life and how, sometimes, people are shown the light only to retreat and avoid it. It’s the same thing that happens in The Artist, but Hazanavicius stumbles because he doesn’t seem aware of this. For the first third of The Artist I was intrigued because I kept thinking that Valentin would have that epiphany and realise how ungracious he was being. He’d hit the bottom to learn from his state. Then, as Peppy’s star began to rise I thought that Hazanavicius was offering a whimsical presentation of the capricious nature of the film industry. But, neither occurs. Everything which occurs is treated in earnest as if we should accept Valentin’s boorishness as legitimate and true. This doesn’t sully the goodness of Dujardin’s performance but it does leave a sour taste in my mouth in regards to the film’s treatment of women. Penelope Anne Miller’s forgotten wife and her plights are played for mere laughs and conversely Bérénice Bejo’s charm can’t mitigate the flatness of Peppy, who is worse off than George. She enters the film in love with Valentin, and we leave her in the same way. There is shockingly little for her to do in the way of characterisation, and the poor thing comes off seeming somewhat vacuous. She has no qualms about his temperamental nature, it seems, and Hazanavicius gives her no dynamism to play, no tension to get through, which is a shame because Bejo seems impossibly game and more significantly because much of the film sails through like a breeze despite these issues.
The very tried adage, all style and no substance comes to mind when I think of the film and that shouldn’t be an issue for me because I love style and I don’t mind if it diminishes the shine of the substance but The Artist can’t help but come off to me as a sweet, aesthetic, lovely bauble. And, no, it has nothing to do with the simplicity of the themes it establishes. Two people have over the last two weeks accused me of being inherently dismissive of artistic worth which is decidedly light. “Andrew,” they said, “You’re a snob. A film need not be wrought with grandiose observances on the significance of life to be a worthwhile film.” (Obviously they didn’t use those words, I’m paraphrasing for effect.) I have nothing against simplicity when fully realised (see Winnie the Pooh)but what robs Hazanavicius’ skill with his cast and his impeccable direction from making this film soar is the lack of follow through in the screenplay. It’s not that I want The Artist to be about something “bigger” but I want it to be about something more complete than its concept.
It would seem lazily flip of me to say that Hazanavicius uses the silent genre as a gimmick but when despite the technical skill his only inclination for making the movie seems to be an homage I’m a little sceptical. There really is nothing there. It can’t succeed as a love story because I can’t buy Peppy’s sycophantic admiration of Valentin as romance especially when he seems to reciprocate only inasmuch as the relationship is helping his fame. And, curiously, I can’t say that it intends on serving as a shrine to silent cinema when the film’s endpoint is Valentin moving to the talkies out of necessary. Add sound to the story, and I think the novelty of The Artist wears thin – which doesn’t bode well for it as something of lasting effect. And, still throughout this The Artist is enjoyable in its own moderate and I’m already annoyed at how the state of the current awards is going to make this look like part of that god-awful conspiracy rooted in that terrible word backlash (something I need to write about some time). The Artist is a more than enjoyable bit of entertainment and it’s a fine film. And, it does have something no film in the last decade or so in that it’s a silent one. But, it forgets that it needs something all films have – at least all great ones – a working story. Which, alas, causes it to fumble a bit at its delivery . Aaah, but it is pretty, and it is enjoyable...but it so quickly dissipates...


Dan O. said...

This was a very well-made film and had its moments where it captures the whole spirit and essence of the silent film era but it’s not that life-changing experience that everybody says it is. Still, a good flick though and I do think it does still deserve the Best Picture Oscar just because I don’t think The Descendants would be a very good winner that will last for the ages. Good review Andrew.

Paolo said...

Yay! I was more pissed off about how it passes itself off as a silent film without being loyal to that medium/era's aesthetics and methods. But I agree, George's character is unsympathetic, which makes me root for Peppy more. But you put her characterization down and you bring up so many good points about her here.

Jose Solís said...

Great films don't need "story"! The Passion of Joan of Arc (thinking silents) had no story and it's one of the most remarkable art works of all time. Certified Copy didn't have it either and you loved it. It's the constant search for story that's made movies so bleh. Give me some Kenneth Anger or Warhol any time over screenplays with perfectly tied up narrative arcs. With that said, I enjoyed The Artist because it never pretends to be about anything else than homage and fun. It's a shame that all the accolades are putting it under such scrutiny.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan of course, we never really WHAT will be a film to last for the ages. back in the day they thought that it's a wonderful life was a flop, and look at it now. who knows, maybe that Hawaiian holiday might last forever ;)

paolo i'm not pissed off at it, though and the thing is i'm not particular well versed in silent films so the anachronisms weren't an issue for me. the peppy issue was unfortunate, though. bejo seems to be earnest, but there's not really anything for her to do.

jose my last paragraph does read as kind of lazy, because my those aren't the crux of my issues, but hazanavicius seems intent on telling a rather structured story with a palpable beginning / middle / end so i can't help but feel the slightest bit put-out when he doesn't make good on any sort of movement with the characters.

for example, why is it a romance if they never seem to grow to love each other? and if it's being ironic, why does he direct it in earnest? and, how unfair to valentin's wife that she's simply a plot-point and god-forbid her being dissatisfied with a husband who ignores her (an issue the film is so glib about).

BUT, that sounds nasty and i did like it. i just have significant issues with it, and i'd hope i'm not part of the *backlash*, but alas... maybe we could chalk it up to this specific type of storyless film doesn't work for me, then?

Jose Solís said...

I see, yeah cause the whole thing about never seeing how they love each other is totally The English Patient, Atonement and Cold Mountain and we both know how you feel about those lol. Poor The Artist, now go see Hazanvicius' spy films, they rock!

Paolo said...

Woah, Jose. Writing that the couples in Atonement and Cold Mountain and never seen how they love each other? Them be fightin' words, gyal! Although back on topic, the love story is pretty thin here and that Peppy wouldn't have loved him had he not been a celebrity. But the story doesn't really call for deep love. And she actually gives a shit about him even in his worst.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

okay, now i think jose is just trying to get a reaction from me. do peppy and valentin make any sort of connection other than the meet-cute, the single movie they make and then the meeting in the lobby and then they don't see each other for years and then she buys all his things? okay, sounding mildly bitter there which i'm not. and, okay, paolo might be right, the story doesn't actually call for deep love, but i wish that peppy would have something more than a narrative than "i love him, i love him, i love him, i love him"

as an aside, if this was a standard rom/com i'd have given it the same grade, like but not love, so i don't think it's the accolades putting it under scrutiny. (conversely, next time i see ANYONE hating on heigl/hudson movie for a protracted love arc i'll get inense, yo.) i put everything under scrutiny damn it. i probably just don't like "fun".