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.