The Artist is a silent film(!), but I don’t think the (!) is justified. While it is moderately entertaining, interesting in its quiet quirkiness compared to the explosion-laden cinematic fare of most blockbusters, and enjoyable in the ways it plays with the silent film form, The Artist is an otherwise forgettable movie. The critical praise it is receiving is a testament more to the marketing prowess of Hollywood than it is to the quality of the story or technical skill of the filmmakers. Only two scenes from the film stand out in my memory, one for the way which it breaks the rules of its silent motif and another because it employs a famous Hitchcock score in a way which distracts from the intended emotion of the scene.
The Artist is about a silent film star in the prime of his career who runs face-first into the advent of sound. There is no place for him in that world, and so he loses everything and spirals into a seemingly bottomless pit of despair. Meanwhile, a young admirer begins her acting career just as sound is being introduced and rises in fame just as rapidly as our protagonist sinks. They are, of course, because this is a movie, romantically linked. The film also features a cute dog.
There is nothing technically wrong with this movie – it’s not a bad film – but there isn’t anything particularly worthy of note either. If this wasn’t a silent film, I don’t think anyone would care about it at all. I most enjoy films that tell good stories, films that take their audiences on engaging journeys to emotional, temporal, and physical locations we cannot easily travel to on our own. The Artist doesn’t take me anywhere I want to go or anywhere I haven’t been before in more compelling ways.
The time between the end of the silent era and the advent of sound has been better explored in Singing in the Rain. The territories of fame and obscurity have been better surveyed in Sunset Boulevard. Granted, just because a narrative space has been well-traveled doesn’t mean it is not worthy of further traversing, but the character arcs in those other two much better films are more true. The characters in The Artist are rewarded for that same desire for fame which dooms the characters in Sunset Boulevard, and their affections are sparked in adultery and seem more like obsession than the more innocent love displayed in Singing in the Rain.
Furthermore, if a silent film is a film that relies on music and image to convey meaning instead of dialog, I have seen better (mostly) silent films this year. Drive is almost nothing but music and image, and Hugo is a better homage to the pre-talkie masters.
It is a shame that The Artist is nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Academy Awards, but should we really be surprised that Hollywood is eager to praise a unabashed celebration of fame, marital infidelity, and the mythical glamour of Hollywood itself? Don’t believe the lie. Fame is empty. Infidelity is wrong. And if you’ve ever walked Hollywood Blvd., you know that supposed glamour is as thin as the screen upon which this silent story is projected.
But maybe you enjoyed it. If you disagree with me, please explain why in the comments. I’m always eager to see the error of my ways if it allows me to like something.