There are few things I like less than a gimmick. Hence my vehement (former) hatred of 3D, as it was simply used to rake in cash while it was masked as a more immersive experience. Masquerading as something more than it is may be the worst part, for when you take away the veil, the only thing you have left is a lousy and sloppily written story. That’s what gimmicks do; that’s their purpose. The same goes for the short lived reemergence of scratch and sniff cards at the movies (they gave me one all the way back during Rugrats Go Wild), which obviously did not last long. But what happens when a gimmick disguised as a “loving tribute to a bygone era” sweeps audiences and critics off their feet, gallivants on the red carpet at international awards shows, and takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture? Ladies and gentlemen, you have Michel Hazanavicius’ smug load of fluff The Artist!
I consider myself a mild enthusiast of silent film, especially the comedies. I have certainly explored the romantic dramas, such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the seedy horror of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the experimental, like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Comedies, however, are my forte. I was enamored of Chaplin and Keaton when I was young and hold them close to my heart in a nostalgic way. So, you would think I would initially be excited that a silent film would take center stage again in world cinema in such a year of highs (The Tree of Life) and lows (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) as 2011. I was indeed very eager. It was nice that a silent film should garner such attention from such a large audience. Though, it took me forever to find out what they were talking about, and the lauds from everyone’s mouths were words blinded by the whimsy and garish light of the grey scale, clearly bedazzling them from the fraud of a film that it is.
The film begins with the premiere of a film, an element that is to begin the trend of wink wink moments directed at the audience. It’s 1927, and the only thing I could think of was, “Is that right? Are those filming techniques right?” George Valentin (Oscar and Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr.-esque character, successful in every action/adventure/romance/thriller he releases. The landscape of film is static at the moment, but there is to be a shift in the wind soon after. He bumps into a nobody extra named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who shortly thereafter rises to stardom. Her rise to stardom, however, is marked by two things: 1) talkies have taken over and silent are quickly becoming a thing of the past and 2) this is all at the expense of Valentin’s stardom. Valentin becomes a forgotten piece of film history, and Peppy enjoys newfound fame, with the hint of obligatory guilt. You see, despite their short meeting, they’re in love. What ensues is a series of faux existential crises that manifest themselves if fairly delirious ways, and other fluffy moments.
Yes, I understand perfectly that this is a loving tribute to the silent film era, something that wants to be so authentic that the aspect ratio (1.33:1) is the same as most films between 1927 and 1931, the period that the film takes place in. The film is mostly silent. There are various allusions to other directors and styles (even the use of some music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This may supposed to be cute and clever, but it comes off as smarmy and anachronistic. Stylistically, Hazanavicius likes to jump the gun to show off how much he likes silent film and how much he loves to pay homage to it. This, however, makes it so that these seemingly minute details do not fit within the context of the film, making the seemingly minute into something rather important. If you’re going to make a movie like it’s 1927/1931, don’t fill it with pieces of style and content that came after it. Without that gimmick and anachronistic series of elements, there is honestly little to say about the plot. Too little visual storytelling happens, its reliance on the gimmick and on “talking”. It’s flat and tired, and can barely stand up for itself.
What’s worse is that all of this is seems incredibly smarmy and the self-awareness is overwhelming. Every time Dujardin winks at the camera – not so much breaking the fourth wall, but winking at the audience within the film – it feels like he, as well as the director, is winking at us, muttering amongst themselves, “Aren’t we cool, and cute, and amazing for making a silent film in 2011? Isn’t this the best?” This total self-awareness ruins the experience, making the gimmick seem even more glaringly obvious that it already was. Gimmicks are bad enough, but when the people in the film are in on it and smirking all the time, the audience is jarred beyond belief. I found them to be completely smug. I found the entire film to be smug.
What I found to be mildly ironic is that Peppy Miller, during an interview for an upcoming film, condemns silent actors to just mugging for the camera, essentially. There seems to be more mugging on the camera from Dujardin as Valentin than in any silent films I’ve actually seen. From Modern Times to The General, from The Last Laugh to Sherlock Jr., there may have been overacting to a point and some embarrassingly hammy reaction shots, but Dujardin really milks it for the camera. As to whether or not this is to prove Peppy’s point and satirize the issue itself or if this is really Dujardin paying tribute to the silent era. Whichever it is, it’s done neither convincingly nor enjoyably.
It occurred to me last night, while at the 60th Anniversary screening of the great musical classic Singin’ in the Rain (which was amazing, by the way), that The Artist is essentially a very bad loose remake of that film. It tackles the same ideas, the same issues; it has a very similar meet cute, and a somewhat similar conflict and resolution. Both films explore the transition from the silent era to the sound era and how worried studio execs were at how actors would sound on the screen. Granted, while similar in theme and plot to some extent, both films take on different routes. The Artist is far more overt and self-congratulatory about its tribute, while Singin’ in the Rain remains fairly modest, giving far more insight into the studio system than The Artist ever did. Most importantly, though, Singin’ in the Rain explores these themes and ideas with sincerity and real wonder, without the smirk or self-awareness. The Artist, with all its hammy acting, anachronistic stylizations, and thin plot, smirks through the entirety of the film. It ends up being too self-aware and even “meta” for its own good. If probably would have fared better simply as a period piece instead of a full-fledged silent project. If you’re looking for a film that accurately and sincerely looks at the transition from silent to sound sans gimmick, you’re better off Singin’ in the Rain.