The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Opening in 1927, in the glory days of the silent era, the mostly silent film The Artist begins as a paean to Hollywood’s pre-talkie glory days. The opening moments, in which we see film star George Valentine (Jean Dujardin) screaming “I won’t speak” while in some villain’s torture device, suggest a more comic take on the sound vs. silent drama than is ultimately provided here, however. Indeed, after the first act, which is neatly sectioned off from the rest of the film, the movie is more Raging Bull than City Lights, examining a self-destructive case of overblown male pride. This dramatic turn is brave, to be sure, but somewhat misguided. As good as charming star Dujardin is channeling Douglas Fairbanks here, he is not half as interesting when he spends the final two thirds of the film glowering. His co-star, Berenice Bejo, seems a tad miscast as well, not quite having the certain “it” that the script insists that she does. These complaints are major ones, given that the film depends upon glamour to such an extent. The dramatic turn poses other problems too, mostly involving the shallowness of the plotting. For example, while having Valentine’s wife express her discontent by drawing silly faces on photos of her husband might be effective shorthand in the first part of the film, it grows increasingly insufficient as the film grows increasingly dramatic. The central romance as well is equally vague, straddling some weird space at the intersection between unrequited obsession, an obligatory debt of graditude, and an extended meet-cute. By the time it ends, The Artist gives the impression that the era when the talkies learned to speak was an uncomplicated one, and that the films of the time were equally simple, which is something of a disservice to one of cinema’s most aesthetically productive eras. All in all, less than the sum of its dog reaction shots and song and dance routines.