The silent era is one of the most important and one of the most sacred eras in film history. It marked the beginning of the motion picture, as well as the beginning of the future. No one had ever seen anything like a movie before, and, as bold of a statement as this may be, nobody ever will.
The late 20s marked the beginning of what was then known as the “talkie”. For years, people had been watching movies with no sound, backed only by live instrumentation to set the tone for every scene. People craved more, though. They figured that if people could talk in real life, why couldn’t they talk in the movies? The transition from silent to talkie left many actors jobless, with few able to maintain their status as a top silent actor or filmmaker, with Charlie Chaplin being one of the most recognizable names.
In The Artist, one of the world’s most famous silent actors, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is facing a similar ultimatum. Either he retires as an actor, forgotten like the rest of silent film, or he adapts to his ever changing environment, embracing the talkie as the rest of the world has. Valentin also has a chance encounter with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young and beautiful dancer who decides to follow her dream of being an actress when a photo of her and Valentin is found on the cover of Variety.
Meanwhile, studio executive Al Zimmer (John Goodman), pushes the technological advancement on Valentin, which does nothing but push him away. Valentin swears that he’ll keep silent film alive, making films of his own that bomb quite drastically as Miller’s status as a leading woman rises quickly, going from extra to star in a mere two years. The two begin something of an unspoken romance that is constantly interrupted by the outside world. Eventually, Valentin finds himself poor and alone, save for his extremely loyal butler, Clifton (James Cromwell). With both talkies and Peppy Miller at the top of the entertainment industry, Valentin is lost, looking for a reason to live as happily as he once did.
The Artist has been named the best film of the year by many a critic, and is almost a shoe-in for best picture at the Oscars this year. The hype for this film, produced by The Weinstein Company, has been some of the biggest of the year, causing viewers to rush to the theater, fueled by the film’s numerous awards, as well as its 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So, does it live up to the expectations of being the best movie of the year?
Well, in short, no. In fact, it doesn’t really even earn a place in my top 20 and possibly even 50 of the year, but it does do something that I can’t quite put my finger on. It had a certain effect on me that I can’t quite vocalize. It wasn’t nostalgic, and it wasn’t authentic, so that can’t be it, but if not that then what?
For one, in aiming to resemble the silent films of the 1920s, it does a relatively decent job, but is also missing quite a bit. Screened in 14:2 ratio instead of the 16:4 that we’re used to was quite pleasing, as was actually making the film silent to really encompass the world that it was portraying. With all of the authenticity though, came quite a few mistakes. For one, the HD quality of the film angered me slightly, as if the filmmakers were going for clean, when in actuality, they should have taken a couple pages from the Death Proof handbook and physically scratched the film, giving it a look much more akin to a 1920s film.
Also, for a silent film, there’s a hell of a lot of talking, more than necessary for a film like this, and it kind of made me wish that they had just made the film a talkie, working harder on a select few scenes that were silent to give the movie a little more flair. The intertitles were unfortunately sparse, and considering the bloated running time, 100 minutes (about a 1/2 hour more than it should have been), intertitles would have been nice.
As I mentioned above, at 100 minutes, The Artist is also far too long, deciding to focus on mostly unnecessary and overly extended comedy sequences as opposed to creating a linear narrative that gets the viewer prepared for what was an excellent and heartbreaking third act. The last forty minutes of the film most definitely saved itself from the first 60, and I wished that the plotting in the first half had been as tight and focused as the second.
The Artist is advertised as a romance film, but for being marketed as such, the romance between the two leads seems to be second to the film’s themes of the future of silent actors and their movies, which is disappointing considering that I was hoping to see a beautiful, silent romance, similar to the one that viewers saw in 1931’s City Lights.
Personally, I spend the time that I’m not watching or reviewing movies researching film history, and as a huge fan of the silent era, the whole film’s plot becomes almost irrelevant once viewers learn that silent films were still being made well into the thirties, a well-known one being 1936’s Modern Times. Valentin is supposed to represent a star as big as Chaplin, so why could Charlie still make silent films successfully, and Valentin couldn’t? Seems odd considering the star status that he seems to hold.
In theory, I probably should have loved this movie. The acting is great, with Jean Dujardin giving one of the best performances of the year. The directing by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, who also wrote the scenario and intertitles, is fantastic, making reflection a metaphor for self-reflection through the sly turn of his camera. So what is it about The Artist that I don’t love? Well, besides its somewhat long first and second act, as a fan of the silent era, the film comes off as a love letter to cinema that got the address wrong. Its heart is in the right place, and its intentions are good, but the boring story never allowed things to take off like they should have, leaving the viewer at a standstill for almost 80 minutes, then gunning it for the last 20. Silent films are deliberate and artful, and require pacing that I found to be lacking here. Then again, if a silent film could win best picture in the the 1920s and the 2010s, that’d be pretty astounding.