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Home » Culture and Criticism

20/31: The Artist

Submitted by on December 21, 2011 – 12:33 AM6 Comments

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.




  • Kerry says:

    I have never heard of this movie, I don’t think? And I still don’t know anything about it. A short summary could be helpful sometimes.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    A silent film star must deal with the transition (or not) to talkies; the film itself is done in the style of a silent film.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I frankly can’t wait to see this, and it’s mainly because the lead was in the hilarious French spy movies (same director) where he kept tormenting the chickens by turning the light on and off!

    That never stops being funny!

  • Seankgallagher says:

    There were a couple of things I didn’t think were appropriate to the time. The director has gone on record as saying silent films were essentially sexless, and that I think is completely wrong (among others, the ghosts of Theda Bara, Louise Brooks, and Myrna Loy – pre-sound for her – would like a word about that), and since the dog so strongly remembered Asta from “The Thin Man” (who also appeared in “The Awful Truth” and “Bringing Up Baby”, among others), I tended to think he was more in line with 30’s screwball comedy than 20’s silent films. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the movie, even though I think Hugo did a better job paying tribute to silent films.

  • Jetta says:

    I’m probably one of the very few people who hated the film. I’m young but I’m a lifelong fan of silent film and to me, The Artist was extremely disappointing. I saw it at a mid-November preview at the Museum of Modern Art which both Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin attended. (Dujardin was mostly quiet but I did not get a good impression of the talkative, sort of pompous Hazanavicius.) I went into the film fully expecting to love it but instead found it incredibly annoying and inconsistent in tone. Some scenes, including the scene that uses Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” love them, interrupt what’s supposed to be heart-wrenching drama with unfunny comedy. Berenice Bejo spends the entire film being an obnoxious caricature. In fact, most aspects of the film are caricatures. The greatest silent films were subtle, or, at the very least, not caricatures; The Artist makes a mockery of the true art of silent film. It makes the filmmaking part look like nothing but slapstick, flapper romances and tepid jungle dramas; meanwhile, the Dujardin-Bejo story is pure cliche. There’s a little too much A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain and some other stories used to add up to an altogether poor idea and screenplay. (The ending is totally unrealistic!) I’m sure a lot of people saw and will see The Artist and feel all proud and artsy for loving a “silent film,” but I’m just fine sticking with the works of F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and King Vidor.

  • Paula says:

    Jetta- could not agree more. Horrible- I walked out after an hour of the lead feeling sorry for himself- weak writing – until he set his apartment on fire. The music gave me a headache, and I was so angry at his selfishness. What about the other people in the building? Guess it’s just a movie- but he could have been evicted, thrown the films out the window, set them on fire outside, kept the one film, and fallen down the stairs holding it. Something less selfish. I did not like the lead. I liked them at first and then he mad me livid. Just lazy writing.
    A great film- The White Ribbon.

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