Welcome to the second of a two part post belatedly discussing two of the biggest films at this years Academy Awards. Part one saw me wax lyrical about The Descendants, whilst this part is concerned with my thoughts on the movie that took the lion share of the awards, the oft commended The Artist.
Sometimes having watched a movie, particularly one that you’re aware has been gilded with a layer of dazzling admiration, you find yourself in the slightly alienated, but laughably tenable, position of wondering if you’re the only sane person left or whether your ticket was the only one missing that dropper of LSD required to really ‘get’ the movie. With an endless cavalcade of remakes, reboots, and rip-offs rammed into our faces these days a very pressing question presents itself when considering The Artist; did we really need a remake of a whole chapter of cinematic history, especially one that does it with no more than a superficial nod in its general direction?
It’s not that The Artist is irreverent to its source material but it just recycles it in an overly reductive manner, taking the rich and sometimes under appreciated (at least by a modern cinema audience) history of silent cinema and the transition to ‘talkies’ to tell us a story that has been told many times before and better, from Singin’ in the Rain to Sunset Boulevard. The scenario is fairly simple, set in Hollywood in 1927 George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) is a highly successful silent film star whose career stagnates and then combusts upon the introduction of sound to movies. Concurrently to this story we have the subsequent rise to fame of Peppy Miller (played by Bèrènice Bejo) who started her career as a result of a mishap with Valentin on the red carpet in a scene that, given the ridiculous success of this movie, seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To produce a movie, such as The Artist, in black and white and adhering to silent movie conventions, complete with intertitles for dialogue and a constant musical accompaniment, is a gimmick. There’s a reason that cinema transitioned to include sound in the late 1920’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly happy with silent cinema, or films without dialogue and indeed successful cinema is often about what you don’t show, or don’t say. However this movie, which is shot – it’s framing, it’s acting, it’s sets et al – in every way as if it were made in the 1920’s doesn’t come across as homage but rather as redundant. The single highlight to the contrary being the nightmare scene in which the movie breaks it’s silent film rules to create a world in which there is sound, objects make sounds when interacted with and people have voices, all except for George Valentin. That scene succeeds in being remarkable and was the first time I was interested, but from there it just returns to it’s festival of cliches, overly romanticised nonsense, and shots of a cute dog.
Because the movie is silent the actors have (hopefully intentionally) overacted most of the scenes, an effect which becomes quite tiring to watch, as if the mantra ‘actions speak louder than words’ were being repeated to them in between takes. Apart from the two leads quite a few recognisable faces turn up; James Cromwell, John Goodman, Missi Pyle and Malcolm McDowell appear at various junctures only serving to remind us that we’ve seen them in better things. There’s some beautiful cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman and that’s, ironically, the Oscar that it would have deserved to win but didn’t.
In the onslaught of repackaged and repurposed cinema The Artist differs in only one way; it decided to go further back in order to ransack and pillage for it’s motivation. It’s not that this film is bad, I mean it’s not great, but more importantly it’s just irrelevant. It’s baffling success is endemic of a bizarre trend of overreaction from media outlets, one which can be evidenced in reverse by the recent critical bulldozing received by John Carter. Whilst that film was by no means perfect, it isn’t deserving of the bashing it’s received, similarly The Artist isn’t deserving of the monolithic pedestal on which it has been placed.
It calls into the question the long arguable merit of The Academy Awards as a relevant reflection of the years best movie achievements. The movie that sweeps the board is often not necessarily the best work of cinema, the most successful, or the most loved, on the nomination list but the one that had the most backing in terms of Hollywood politics. The one that was campaigned for the most fiercely. Perhaps I’m wrong, everyone seems to love this film, it has near universal acclaim from everyone who’s reviewed it… But surely I can’t be the only one that was indifferent towards it and just wondered what all the fuss was about?
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park; they were so preoccupied with whether they could make The Artist that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
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