20/31: The Artist
My esteemed colleague Couch Baron, blowing off The Artist with the combined force and economy of that air-puff glaucoma test you get at the eye doctor, described the film as, among other things, "so up its own ass that it seems to think it's above mundane considerations such as story and editing."
He went on to call it "marginally amusing at best (James Cromwell and Missi Pyle, as little as they were on screen, were hilarious) and grotesquely indulgent at worst," and added that, "if going in, you worry that it’s going to annoy you? You’re probably right."
There's a reason…well, there's a bunch of reasons I decided to do 31 Days, 31 Films with Couch Baron, but a critical one is his status as my film bellwether. We don't always agree or like the same things; it's more that I can apply his loves and hatreds to gauge how I'll feel about a movie myself. Based on what he objected to about this one, I assumed I wouldn't have much use for it either. I expected to hate it; for the first 20 minutes, I did hate it.
And I hate a lot of things about it. The running gag with the dog is era-appropriate, tonally, and it's a Jack Russell, the gold standard of movie-dog cuteness, but it's still a running gag with a dog and it's still annoying. Peppy Miller is also period-appropriate, but…periods end, for good reason, and she takes some getting used to. (Also period-appropriate, in its way: Berenice Bejo is director Michel Hazanavicius's paramour.) In half a dozen scenes, the music cues don't match up with what's happening; CB specifically called out the scene with the auction items, and I concur. It's a Frankenstein cue, that touches off a plot point it should be resolving instead.
But my notes look more or less like "X is fucking annoying…okay, we get it…Y is stup– fine, that's kind of cool…hee, Goodman's plastic smile is perfect here…wife drawing mustache/glasses on pix of him = love." The Artist very much wants you to love it, and throws everything it has at you in the service of that, and I have to say, in the end, it worked. Maybe it's that Bejo looks like a friend of mine, who really is that peppy and charming. Maybe it's that of course Valentin goes down into quicksand in his last-gasp silent film, a reliable trope of adventure narrative from 75-100 years ago that you never see anymore. Maybe it's Cromwell as the butler nobly fired mid-vegetable-slice, or Bejo's face as she sits in the nearly empty theater watching Valentin's movie, or the black-and-white photography that makes everything seem crisper than it is. Certainly it's partly Jean Dujardin, who can do big and small moments, rocks the Cotton Club 'stache, and never sells the story out for a second.
It's more gimmicky than good, and the charge that it lives in its own bum, while simultaneously skating across the emotions it seeks to elicit, is valid. But I don't think it does that in a cynical way, or spends much time congratulating itself for effort. I'd say it's more concerned with capturing the bittersweet (and sometimes tragic) shifts of that era, and of how we used to think of ourselves and our stories. The result is uneven and occasionally myopic, but also committed and affectionate, and it's that, I guess, that got me on its side in the end.
That, and I recognized the cop in the fire sequence as Joel Murray from One Crazy Summer without having to look it up. I'm fickle that way.
It seems The Artist is the presumptive frontrunner for Best Picture. It's the kind of nobody-hated-it thing that could wind up with an armload of statues; how I feel about that will depend on what else gets nominated. But I don't dislike its chances.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Berenice Bejo Couch Baron exposition fairies James Cromwell Jean Dujardin Joel Murray John Goodman manipulative use of pets in film and TV Michel Hazanavicius Missi Pyle movies Oscars 2012 Death Race The Artist