Build Your Own Review: The Artist

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”.

The Story

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.


13 thoughts on “Build Your Own Review: The Artist

  1. … and there I was coming out of the cinema on Monday thinking “This would be the perfect film for one of Dan North’s ‘Build Your Own’ Reviews.” Well, that way, I don’t have to do it. :)

    • It was only when I reflected on the film later that I could start to pin down what had bugged me about it. I usually write a Build-Your-Own when I’m conflicted about a film; in this case, I found it much easier to write the negative comments, which is probably revealing.

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  3. Excellent! The patronizing is unwarranted actually. The film eschews any wit or complexity characteristic of the best silent films and instead tries to pass that mediocrity as the norm. No doubt there were a ton of cheesy productions back then, but making silent films supremely corny to conceal its own corniness is something. (Both MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR are far better reflection on silent cinema than this one will ever want to be.). But amusing nonetheless.

    • Thanks, JAFB. I’m just catching up on a backlog of comments. I’m reluctant to slam The Artist too hard, because I did enjoy it. The dream sequence (with sound) made me think I was in for something a lot more adventurous and existential, but it didn’t go that route. Hazanivicius has made his career out of pastiche and spoof (who on earth thought we needed more James Bond parodies?!), responding to cinema rather than developing it, so we shouldn’t really be surprised by his approach to “homage”.

  4. When I first heard about the movie The Artist I said to myself I really have no interest in seeing that. Little did I know I would be going to see it will my Art For Children class as part of our class time. Going into the movie I was not excited that it was a silent film. After watching the movie I feel like I was altogether very wrong about what to expect. The movie was a wonderful story that showed the art of cinema and it showed how cinema has changed over the years through a funny, witty and creative story of an actor and director. It seems to be one of those feel good kind of movies and the main characters were a delight to watch. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo performance made me realize the art of acting and it made me appreciate all of the aspects of film back in the day and how film is today. The movie shows the rise of one actor Peppy Miller played by Bérénice Bejo due to the changes in film going from silent film to talkies and it shows the downfall of the other character George played by Jean Dujardin as well. The story show the contrast of the characters, but at the same time it shows both of their love for what they do and their interest in exciting entertainment. It also shows how their love for each other grows throughout the movie and depicts the sweet innocent love they have for each other. The film does seem slow at some points, but the funny action and the interesting and engaging music keep the audience engaged and guessing at what is coming next. It seems to keep you on your toes literally, because it is a great story with a happy ending that shows how cinema has changed in good ways and bad. It definitely is one worth watching.

    • Hi, Abby. I’m glad the film was a revelation for you. Whatever my reservations about the movie, I’m always happy that a film can show people something they’ve never seen or expected to see before – it’s always good to expand our frame of reference and keep pursuing new forms of art and entertainment.

  5. Perhaps the relentless sweeping up of awards is making it impossible to see “The Artist” for what it is: no masterpiece, but simply an accomplished, very amusing, quite endearing trifle, in the vein of Truffaut’s “La Nuit Américaine” / “Day for Night” (perhaps not coincidentally, an Oscar / BAFTA winner) or Ken Russell’s “The Boy Friend” (not as garlanded). It bears the same relation to “silent cinema” as Truffaut’s film-within-a-film “Je vous présente Pamela” (not a masterpiece, no bones made about it) bears to the movies it was parodying, and a rather less mocking rapport than that between Russell’s “Boy Friend” and Sandy Wilson’s original stage show. (Apparently Wilson was less than charmed, even if Russell’s send-up was affectionate.) Oh, and did I mention “Singin’ in the Rain”?

    Re various accusations of “betraying”, “cheapening” or simply getting silent cinema wrong, I’m not convinced Michel Hazanavicius was seriously trying to make a “silent movie”. He made a career out of broad comedy after all (he started with “Les Nuls”, a group of French TV comedians). In any case, it may not even be possible to make a “silent movie” today. Until “The Jazz Singer” hit the jackpot, “silent movies” were simply the movies, no members of the audience scratched their heads wondering why no one spoke. Once “talkies” had carried the day, the question became inevitable: silence became an aesthetic choice, and those always have a meaning. It’s the same thing with monochrome. “Silent” wasn’t a genre, it was a historical circumstance that cannot come back.

    It has been pointed out elsewhere that “The Artist” is better compared, in terms of visual style, to 30s and 40s Hollywood comedies and musicals. This look was painstakingly crafted. We know Hazanavicius saw several silent classics in preparation, and showed them to his actors. They are accomplished professionals who would certainly have been able to emulate that specific look better. I take this as a clue that Hazanavicius intended a nostalgic mish-mash. He filmed a valentine to movies as *artifice*, not art. The movie George Valentin directs in “The Artist” is doomed not just by the arrival of sound but (judging from what we see of it) also because it isn’t exactly a masterpiece. Much as Valentin might think it is. (I’d need to see “The Artist” another time to make my mind up about this point.)

    Moreover, “The Artist” unashamedly relies – hinges, even – on clichés. Arguably, some of them might not have been clichés yet in the late Twenties, but we’ve already established that “The Artist” takes place in some sort of generic “golden age” past. And this may be the point: “The Artist” is generic, everyone and everything in it is generic, the artists, the producers, the technicians, the studios and their product – but everything charms because of the gimmick of silence. It is calculation at its most open, but it isn’t cynical (at least, I didn’t take it like that); Hazanavicius seems to be looking rather at how these things can be made to work. To make it sound a bit loftier, he may be trying to show the art in the artifice; a film about the love of the craft.

    The cleverest scene of “The Artist” is perhaps at the very end, when sound is introduced by the heavy exhausted breathing of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo as they stand still at the end of their dance routine, waiting for the signal to relax. Golden age musicals gave us the freeze but made sure to mute the effort, so as not to break the illusion (though the fixed expressions and slightly trembling limbs would sometimes give the game away). “The Artist”, however, touchingly chooses to end by breaking this very illusion and paying tribute to the effort behind it. “Dream factory”, indeed.

    • Hi, Sergio. It’s taken me a while to get round to responding to comments, but I’m getting there now. I’ve saved yours for last – many thanks for sharing your ideas to thoughtfully on my blog. I’ve always thought of blogging as a quick draft of something, and the comments section is there to help flesh it out.

      If I had to lean in one direction on The Artist (I hope it’s clear that my ‘Build Your Own Review’ posts are a conflation of more than one conflicting critical position), I’d most probably agree with you that it’s an adorable, slight piece of entertainment. The opening scenes were great to watch with an audience, because you could sense the room shuffling gradually into the groove of a less familiar form of film.

      Great reading of the ending – it was a lovely moment, even if that punchline was fairly obvious. but I suspect Hazanavicius was trying, as far as possible, to mimic a certain kind of silent movie, along the lines of Clarence Badger’s It (Berenice Bejo is channelling a bit of Clara Bow, I’m sure). And one of Valentin’s movies comprises clips from a Douglas Fairbanks (Don q, Son of Zorro). I’m not enough of a specialist in silent film to really unpick the discrepancies, but I sense that performance styles were much more stratified – i.e. there was a “tragic” mode or a “comic” mode etc., and The Artist collapses them into one style of brisk pantomime.

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  9. I was reluctant to see it, too, for such high expectations, but it’s really such a lovely film. For me, I enjoyed the bueaty of the shots, the humor, and all the many homages throughout to Chaplin, Lubitsch, Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, René Clair, Wilder, Cocteau, Buñuel, more and more. A pastiche of movie love, perhaps, but clever through and through, where nothing is wasted.

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