The Artist, a film so adored that the discovery that some people thought it less than awesome was considered newsworthy in some quarters. A film so sophisticated that The Daily Telegraph felt it appropriate to point and laugh at the dirty proles who just didn’t get it. The film that made it easy for pseuds to pretend they were big fans of silent movies all along, when really they were just happy to have a French movie where they didn’t have to read too many subtitles. As everybody knows, with the exception of The Daily Telegraph‘s made-up mob of baffled scousers, The Artist is a silent movie (with synchronised musical soundtrack), and this is apparently a very daring and innovative thing, because nobody watches silent movies any more: generally, people seem surprised that The Artist is not unwatchable or incomprehensible, so it is at the very least a good thing that it has swung some spotlight back onto the silent period. Will it see an increase in the sales of Douglas Fairbanks boxsets? Who knows. Whatever your thoughts on the film, it rode into town on the bank of a mass of critical acclaim, and was met with a more varied set of responses. In advance of an all-out backlash, I offer up one of my (not-actually-)patented Build Your Own Review posts. Not sure what to make of the film, and frustrated by partisan reviews? Then collate your own mixed response from the entries below. Choose mostly option 1 if you found The Artist to be a joyous celebration of filmy goodness, and mostly option 2 if you’re a curmudgeonly, dessicated old git. Probably.
1. Making a silent film in this day and age, when the trend is towards an escalation of novelty, technology, and noise, is a bold move. For that, and for throwing attention back onto cinema’s past, rather than its stumbling, straw-clutching future, the film deserves applause. For mimicking the language of silent cinema so fluently, in its set design, titling, performance styles and celebratory slapstick action, it demands extra praise, cutting no corners and missing no tricks. It will attract new audiences to silent films, and perhaps even staunch the flood of hypertechnological exercises that count for films these days. A dialogue-free romantic comedy, it reawakens its viewers’ senses to ways of seeing that have been left dormant for too long.
2. The Artist mocks rather than celebrates silent film – silence is portrayed as the problem to be solved, a blockage to be cleared, the setup to a punchline. George’s refusal to “speak”, i.e. to make a talkie, is used as an analogue for his failures of communication, his stubborn pride and his outward, vainglorious attitude. Silent screen acting is shown as a skillful, but nevertheless a slightly glib, florid and hammy art. Viewers are held at a distance by the style, because they are asked, at every turn, to understand it as past, outdated, artificial. This will be the legacy of The Artist when the dust of novelty settles: a film which validates technical “progress” at the expense of “the old ways”, and further cements the view of the silent era as the infantile trial run for “proper cinema”.
1. A touching romance develops between a young starlet who embraces the talkie era, and a vain matinée idol loyal to the silent film and fearful of life beyond it. His personal deterioration maps onto the decline of the silent cinema, making perfect sense of the decision to make the film without synchronised speech. As classical as its clothes and visual style, the simple narrative of a man’s conflicted response to personal and professional change is the perfect foil for a meditation on the fragile history of cinema; silent film, it concludes, is ageless, vivacious, but historically distant.
2. Let’s face it, The Artist is “high concept”, but that’s just fancy talk for “only has one idea.” For something that has garnered such praise and scored so many awards/nominations, this film is alarmingly slight: it’s plot developments are obvious, signposted from the start (not to mention borrowed from Singin’ in the Rain); we learn nothing about silent film, and the characters remain locked into their pastiches rather than opened out to us as flesh-and-blood people. The couple’s eventual union is a foregone conclusion without dilemma or suspense. By implying that a simplistic love story is the natural domain of the silent film, The Artist once more patronises the early years of Hollywood, even as it speaks the language (or mimes the gestures) of celebration and appreciation.
The Reviews1. It’s no mystery that The Artist won critics over; that they could have reacted more cynically towards something so resolutely old-fashioned is a vindication of its charms. Any backlash is a (delayed) reactionary revolt from people who have forgotten to simply enjoy a film, and that enjoyment can foster positive reflection and renewed affection for a cinematic age that too many, critics included, were prepared to strike from the record. The true value of The Artist will be seen when the resurgence of critical and popular attention given to silent film provokes new responses to film history, physical comedy and the boundaries of popular film.
2. It’s no mystery that critics had great fun watching The Artist, probably because it is diverting, undemanding, and asks for no hard work from its viewers. A number of critics have pointed out the film’s flaws and failings; this is not a “backlash”, but critics doing their job of analysing and upholding the standards of film culture. That this is what passes for prestige entertainment, lauded to the skies and machine-gunned with awards, is a damning indictment of a critical establishment dozing at their keyboards. Kim Novak was going too far when she “reported a rape” after seeing how the film appropriated music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but plenty of people could safely report a fleecing after watching this overhyped movie.
Summary1. Fast and funny, The Artist finds strength in perfect timing and detailed comedic performances that pay sincere homage to the history of Hollywood cinema’s golden age. Like the films it fondly recalls, it will endure for decades to come. And there’s a bit with a dog.
2. Insubstantial and patronising, The Artist is a revelation only to those who haven’t bothered to watch any actual silent movies. In years to come it will join films like Driving Miss Daisy and American Beauty in the pantheon of award-winning movies we’re all a bit embarrassed about praising at the time.