The Artist premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was notably
drawing buzz over the novelty of its premise. It's a movie about the end
of the silent film era in Hollywood, made as a silent film itself. Now,
it's been many, many decades, if not almost a hundred years, since
anyone paid for a silent film in a movie theater that wasn't a Charlie
Chaplin retrospective or something.
The question is why. Why make a movie this way? If you've seen a film in a Regal Entertainment movie theater this year, you would've noticed Regal's "Go Big or Go Home" campaign. With all the work that George Lucas has done with THX Ltd to improve cinema and surround sound, with all the work that James Cameron has done with 3D, and with all the work that Christopher Nolan has done with IMAX, all of them with expanding films, making them bigger and louder, French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius reverses all that by making a movie that's literally smaller because it's shot in a smaller aspect ratio and that's literally quieter because it was shot with no sound.
Here's the thing. While the theaters are quick to charge for the supposedly added bonus of 3D, notice the price does not go down when you buy a ticket for The Artist, which is giving you not an added bonus but a subtracted one. There have been films done in black-and-white before to great effect, but this movie not only takes away the color and sound but also a chunk of the screen space. If you're wondering if I felt a little robbed by this movie, it's because I did feel robbed.
I'm sure Hazanavicius would argue that he's trying to introduce silent films and all that was great about them to modern audiences. Therefore, like 3D movies, with the exception of Avatar and Hugo, this movie is using its silent film nature as a gimmick, an actual cheap gimmick. It's interesting for the first few minutes, but, by the end of the movie's 100 minutes, the novelty had long since worn off.
As unfair of a statement, as I'm about to make, I will make it. The story of The Artist is about an actor who is a star of silent films who has to accept the fact that sound films are taking over. Much in the same way, 3D movies are taking over cinema one hundred years later. Some "artists" may resist. I may even be one of them, but we're probably going to have to accept that 3D movies are here to stay and may in fact become the standard for all films.
Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin who in 1927 is making a silent film called "A German Affair." Prior to shooting it, Valentin attends a premiere where his adoring fans are outside cheering him on. Among them is a young aspiring actress named Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, into whom Valentin bumps. The two smile at each other on the red carpet and the press takes their picture. This incident launches her into stardom.
The problem is her stardom comes at the cost of Valentin's. He's a silent film actor, whereas she's a sound film actor. In other words, he's 2D and she's 3D and for Valentin, it's out with the old and in with the new. The difference is the use of sound in movies took over faster than 3D is taking over now. There's also a distinct contrast here.
Whereas some critics can debate whether or not 3D is important or vital enough that every movie should be made in 3D, and it's a legitimate debate, the importance and vitality of sound can't be debated. It's like the use of color in movies. Once your eye has seen the beauty of a rainbow or a golden sunset, there is no going back. This isn't to say that there can't be beauty in black-and-white or beauty even in silence, but as the story of this movie indicates and as the history of cinema indicates, movies have always been about moving forward, adding sound, adding color, adding 3D, not taking those senses away.
It's simply ironic that Hazanavicius' style here is a complete contradiction to what ultimately his message is. Hazanavicius should have taken a lesson from Martin Scorsese's Hugo because in that film Scorsese was able to convey what old movies did without making an old movie himself.
All that being said, this film does have entertaining and funny moments. In general, it's cute, much in the way the Jack Russell terrier constantly by Valentin's side is cute, and Jean Dujardin is beyond handsome and he is beyond charming, and he has a smile that is thoroughly ebullient. If you've seen his previous works, you know he's an actor whom you can follow anywhere. Forget George Clooney. Forget Bradley Cooper. Dujardin should be on the cover of People magazine.
All of the actors play up the comedic aspects for the most part, but there are some genuine dramatic moments, which are well done. Dujardin who is a French actor, known mostly for doing comedy, handles those dramatic moments. He also proves to be a good dancer, so if this movie is worth anything, it's worth it because of Dujardin.
I would praise Hazanavicius for being able to tell a story all visually without the use of dialogue, but I won't. There are title cards, which go a long way to help. That, and the story Hazanavicius tells is not all that complicated or deep. We see potential for depth. We also see the potential for Hazanavicius to break out of this premise, which shackles the experience. More like we see Hazanavicius teasing us. Let's just say, after having sat through a very reductive film viewing, I wasn't in the mood to be teased.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.