The Films of 2011: The Artist

Michel Havanicius’ The Artist has been raking in accolades ever since it premiered at Cannes last May—it’s currently a front-runner in the Oscar race, and it’s being described with words like “charming” (Melissa Anderson) and “dazzling” (A. O. Scott).  It is, indeed, a lovely, charming film, a winsome homage to 1920s Hollywood.  Filmed in black-and-white with almost no spoken dialogue, it jauntily replicates the conventions of silent comedy (with a few modern touches applied with a wink). 

The Artist is also part of a long tradition of movies about the Hollywood studio system as so-called “dream factory”: it spans the years 1927 to 1932, as talkies drive out silent cinema and young up-and-comers like the effervescent Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) replace established stars (Jean Dujardin, playing a raffish Douglas Fairbanks type).  Though it takes a few light-hearted jabs at the industry—and briefly ventures into dark territory in the last act—it’s largely celebratory, a lovingly rendered paean to the glamour and romance of old Hollywood.  And yet there’s something slight about the thing: it needs another turn of the screw, so to speak, in order to qualify as great cinema instead of a clever trifle.  Like Stephanie Zacharek—who calls it the best film of the year—I appreciate The Artist’s lightness; unlike the typically bloated Oscar-bait movie, you don’t feel it straining to be great.  But it also doesn’t stick in the mind or afford the depth of pleasure that more genuinely ambitious movies do.  After seeing it, it shrinks in the memory.  The Artist is a fine, cleverly devised film, but one can’t help feeling that it plays it too safe, catering to the same middlebrow crowd to which last year’s The King’s Speech was pitched—folks who want to see a “nice” picture that doesn’t ruffle their feathers.  There’s nothing wrong with “nice” pictures…except, of course, that they’re not great.  (As my boyfriend pointed out, “charming” and “cute” and “clever” are the words we use when there isn’t much else to say about something, and they’re the words that most come to mind after leaving The Artist.)

The film does sport some truly delightful sequences, such as a gag in which Dujardin’s character, filming a scene with the enchanting Peppy, is so smitten with her that he keeps flubbing the take.  In scenes like this, we feel like Hazanivicius is showing us something absolutely new, giving us a scene we haven’t seen before, and not just capitalizing on our nostalgia for the elegant shimmer of old movies.  But then there are other, more egregious touches, like the relentless cuteness (if you’re looking for a cheap way to get laughs, trot out a dog), or the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo love theme during the film’s dramatic climax, which seems inexplicable (and could be said to amount to cinematic sacrilege).  It’s choices like these that make us wonder whether The Artist is the real thing or whether it’s taking shortcuts to try and move us.           


  1. Appreciate the comparison to the King's Speech and the particularly revealing line that it "shrinks in the mind." Although I think this was leagues beyond King's Speech.

    Re: my comment about cute and charming... upon further reflection I think something can be great and charming/cute/clever (Fellini, Haydn) but it's pretty rare in the modern day. This film isn't.

  2. Agreed on both counts. The Artist is a better film (or at least it appeals to me more) than TKS; my point, though, is that neither one expects very much from its audience, and that may be one of the reasons why they're both somewhat disappointing.

    I'm not sure I would describe Fellini as cute or charming, though--even his lightest and most appealing films (like Amarcord) are too grotesque and bizarre to really be called "cute." A better example of a great film artist who successfully mixed greatness with cuteness/charm would probably be Chaplin--obviously one of the influences on The Artist, though it's hardly in the same league. (And even Chaplin has his detractors.)

  3. I've been dying to see this as it supposedly makes a few nods to my chosen religion, "Sunset Boulevard"--- and has similar subject matter--though I'm guessing it handles said subject with an infinitely lighter touch. I'm saddened that it doesn't quite seem to live up to the hype. I'll have to see it soon and discuss it with the two of you!

    I have two other thoughts:

    I very much enjoyed "The King's Speech" and, though I totally agree that its sweeter tone didn't do the kind of delving we'd expect from an Oscar winner, I must say that, as someone who's had vocal problems of her own, I found the film very much forced me to identify with and confront those relatively "big" themes of crippling anxiety and the desire to discover one's own potential through one's own voice (be it literal or figurative). I think it went a bit beyond the "nice" category for me and definitely put its foot into greatness, if not its whole being :)

    Secondly--is the love theme from "Vertigo" not also the love theme from Tristan und Isolde? I remember a music in film class devoted to how Hermann cribbed most of the Vertigo score from Wagner because he felt the "Liebestod" idea was essential to the Vertigo plot. Perhaps "The Artist" commits a double sacrilege in stealing from both a cinematic AND an operatic masterpiece!

  4. Thanks for your insightful comment! My intention was not to bash either The Artist or TKS here. I really enjoyed TKS last year, too--the performances especially. My complaint has more to do with what I see as a kind of complacency on the part of some audiences and critics who are settling for (or perhaps just prefer) safer, more middlebrow fare to stuff that's really going to challenge them. So perhaps my beef is less with either film and more with their reception and the awards that have been showered on them, seemingly because they're the only films people can agree to having liked, while bigger, bolder experiments (like, for example, "The Tree of Life") are seen as too divisive. But make no mistake, "The Artist" (like TKS) is a well-made film and worth seeing. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it!

    As for the music: the Vertigo theme is indeed modeled on the Liebestod. I'm disinclined to say that Herrmann "cribbed" it--it's different music, though it obviously owes a strong debt to Wagner. It's certainly a different case than this film's dropping the entire five- or six-minute chunk of Herrmann's score incongruously into its next-to-last scene, which struck me as lazy, a shortcut instead of an homage (especially since the scene it's used over doesn't really have anything to do with Vertigo, and Vertigo, of course, was not even a silent film. The thought seemed to be, 'hey! This is a movie about old movies--let's use this music from another famous movie! Old people will love it.') But again, see for yourself.

  5. Sorry, perhaps "cribbed" wasn't the right word. Forgive me, as it was late and I was not in top writing form. I do remember our professor saying the Herrmann developed his theme out of the infamous "Tristan" chord and that he was proud of doing so--that he in fact WANTED his audience to make that connection, despite the differences in his music and Wagner's. So it was like a joyous plagiarism. Does that make sense?

    I totally agree with your statements about "The King's Speech" and quieter films. I suppose my thinking was that, though cinematically "The King's Speech" may not have pushed many boundaries or challenged audiences to think in a different way, I certainly found my boundaries pushed and challenges made for me within the plot rather than within the filmmaking. I suppose that's an endless debate (plot vs. execution) and I know the art of film lies in TELLING the story rather than in the story itself, but I also know that my enjoyment of the film wasn't necessarily governed by its "niceness" or its "safeness"; in fact I found some of the moments of self-discovery in the film downright torturous. For that reason, I don't think of it as middlebrow or as a compromise of sorts. But then, I've always been a plot girl :)