Aside from a few other big ones – A Separation, Moneyball and We Need to Talk About Kevin in particular – Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to cinema is the last of the big awards films from 2011 on my radar.
Those familiar with Singin’ in the Rain will know the plot: it’s the 1920s and silent films are all the rage. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his actorly popularity. Unfortunately, The Jazz Singer is looming its head. Talkies are coming. 1927 ushers in the advent of sync-sound, and the years after that see silent cinema dwindling into nothingness. Valentin’s popularity sinks and a self-funded, last-ditch film fails miserably, plunging him into bankruptcy. Along the way he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) – an aspiring actress who arrives right at the dawn of cinematic sound. As Valentin’s star falls, Peppy’s rises.
Noteworthy for being almost entirely dialogue free, and with very little sync-sound to speak of outside of a fun nightmare sequence and the final few minutes, The Artist is pretty to look at, and is also a film that demands to be viewed with a cinematically-astute and friendly crowd. It’s hard to complain about a film that doesn’t actually try to do much, but at the very least achieves a love of its medium. Cries of bastardization of a Herrman score are off-base: sure the music could have gone the route of originality, but when the goal is to concoct a narrative that is as much Donen as it is Welles and inject a good amount of Fairbanks into the mix, ‘borrowing’ is fair game.
The fun of The Artist isn’t only the film history in-jokes, the Asta-like dog, the charming performances, or John Goodman with a cigar firmly in his mouth throughout, but also the return to an idealized cinematic space that is glamour and nostalgia-heavy, where the drama that exists is economic or artistic, and not violent or sexual. In short, it’s old-school, Code-era filmmaking with a 2011 sheen over the top of its hazy interior shots.
A charge that could certainly be leveled here is that of ‘gimmick,’ and though I don’t completely buy it (for the simple reason that I enjoyed the performances, direction and script reasonably enough), it does hold some weight if this is a narrative you’re familiar with. Turn those mics on throughout and The Artist loses much of its time-transport luster. It also, of course, becomes somewhat anachronistic.
More so than some of my favorite films of the year (and, though this is a fun entry, it would not come close to making that list), The Artist is a film that really needs an audience. I caught it in a theater with only about 20 other people. I was likely the youngest by a good 40 years. This was a good thing – the older generation got a lot of the jokes, seemed to appreciate the clean humor, and filled up the theater more than their presence indicated they’d be capable of. Still, something about the magnitude of the opening theater shots in The Artist made for disappointing viewing: when the theater I’m watching onscreen is more entranced, more crowded, and buzzing with more anticipation than the one I’m actually sitting in, even vicarious, escapist viewing doesn’t quite do the trick.