Reflections on “The Artist”

For maybe two months now, “The Artist” has been on my  must-see list. As someone who already loves silent movies – and has even successfully turned on some non-fans to the delights of Keaton and Chaplin – the mere idea of a brand-new, black-and-white silent film was almost too wonderful to believe. I even clipped out and saved reviews – unread – to savour after I’d seen it, so as not to reveal even the smallest plot detail beforehand and keep my first viewing truly fresh. However, my new, less-spontaneous life, where a babysitter is a necessity for any grown-up moviegoing, delayed my viewing of the film until just last weekend. Now I have some thoughts. Like most things that get a huge buildup of anticipation, I found “The Artist” to be not without its flaws, but overall I enjoyed it very much. It starts with a bang, as we enjoy a high-energy adventure film along with the 1925 opening-night audience assembled at a grand movie palace. We also get one of several knowing nods to the whole exercise, as our film-within-a-film’s hero, the silent star George Valentin, bound and about to be tortured for information, exclaims (in title cards of course), “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” The rest of the opening packs in plenty of laughs and entertainment, with an engaging star who keeps wringing a little more time in front of his adoring audience, a jealous co-star, a gruff studio chief – even a dog who charms us with his perfectly-timed routines. From there, we are plunged into the meticulously recreated world of 1920’s moviemaking. From the camera angles to the newsboys, it really feels like the filmmakers went back in time. There are also some wonderful moments of visual storytelling – like the infatuated starlet Peppy Miller inserting her arm into Valentin’s unattended jacket, bringing it “to life” so it embraces her. Or a later scene of Valentin after his fortunes have fallen, gazing at his reflection in a shop window in which he seems to be dressed in the tuxedo on display. But at some point I started to have problems. The characters were archetypes, not real living breathing characters I could truly care about. A romance is suggested as developing between the silent star and his protege, but we never really see it develop in any way. It’s over before it really begins. He’s also married to a long-suffering wife, but their relationship is even less fleshed out – they mostly just glare at each other. The lack of emotional connection means that as Valentin slides toward bankruptcy and oblivion, we aren’t really invested in his fate. I watched more with intrigued interest at scenes that were clearly intended to pull at my emotions. Silent films were, of course, not truly silent – there was always music. And the music in “The Artist” is very well done. It’s a lovely score, and is complemented by some selections of period music. At one point, though, the love theme from “Vertigo” – possibly my favourite film of all time – suddenly began to play under a later, suspenseful scene. I was startled but rather pleased – I always welcome the appearance of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting music. But it also bothered me, as the emotional beats in that piece didn’t really match what was happening on screen. Ultimately, I found myself wondering if I would be giving this film high marks simply as a film – in other words, if this was a genuine old silent film, would I find it engaging and involving enough to consider a good film in its own right? Sadly, I would have to say no. Some of what I’d read about “The Artist” seemed to imply that it went into “meta” territory, commenting on the nature of why we go to movies or the nature of silent vs. sound films. Nothing I saw really bore this out. There is one unique dream sequence which makes unexpected and clever use of realistic sound effects, but it’s the only time we see anything unexpected that really plays with the medium. Unfortunately, in the end, “The Artist” perpetuates the idea that silent films could only tell simplistic, clichéd stories, which was hardly the case – silents could be as rich in characterization and rife with subplots as any sound film. There is much to enjoy in “The Artist”, but in the end it is more a loving pastiche than a truly successful film in itself.

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