Film Review: The Artist
As I settled in to watch the Michel Hazanavicius’s new movie, The Artist, the cinema ran an advertisement for the Australian multicultural television channel, SBS. A small seed, maybe a sperm, rushed through dark channels with thousands of others, pulsing with light it rose to the top and swung round hairpin bends, through obstacles higher it lifted in a roar, breaking through the surface of a sphere and transforming the darkness into a planet of flowers, like a purple hydrangea. The voice over was a warm foreign sounding voice and told us that “some ideas are too good to die”.
Maybe The Artist, a silent black and white movie, is one of those ideas that is just too good to die? Warwick Thornton hinted at it a few years ago in his remarkable Samson and Delilah. The surprising part about that film was not that there was little dialogue but that the absence of dialogue was so unimportant. Life was there in all its complexity. Anger, first love, family ties, injustice and happiness.
Could The Artist repeat what Samson and Delilah had (ever so quietly) achieved?
The Artist is the story of the decline of a silent movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), and the rise of a new breed of star, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), in the talkies. It’s also a love story, of sorts, between the two.
There is much to like about both Valentin and Miller. Valentin fills the screen with old fashioned charm – handsome, smiling and somehow manly. Miller is a very physical actress – every part of her acts. When she makes the front page of Variety for the first time, we see her delight in the way she walks, delight almost bursting from her limbs. We recognize that special and rare feeling of everything being well in the world.
The Artist does not make enough use of its stars though. There is zingy rapport between the pair. We want to see them together. In one scene they meet on a stairwell. Valentin has just been fired by the studio and Miller has been taken on as a new star. Miller is on her way up the stairs and Valentin is on his way down. In case we don’t get the metaphor, the director pans out to show Valentin standing mid three tiers of stairs, distracted and alone, after Miller continues on her way up. Sledgehammer anyone? Sure, the use of the metaphor might be in keeping with the 1920s style of movie making but what would have been wrong with a little more subtlety and creativity?
One of the best scenes is where the director gets creative. He introduces sound. And sound has never been so beautiful. We hear a glass hit the dresser, a stool as it is knocked over and then the wind as it brushes over long grasses. Simple yet the surprise had me sitting up in my seat. It was still early in the movie – was this the point where things would shift up a gear? Maybe this explains why The Artist is winning awards and five star reviews? But, no. Things just settle back into a rut.
I wonder why people love this movie. Perhaps the charm of the film is its simplicity. The story line is straightforward, the stars likeable. We know where we are going and we know what we will feel like when we get there. The styling is consistent throughout. The opening credits are the black and white cards of old movies, the score is the old score we remember from old movies on wet Saturday afternoons. The simplicity and styling never lets up.
But simplicity is a tricky thing. It takes great skill to make simplicity anything other than plain, (or just plain awful). Perhaps the masters of simplicity are the Australian Aboriginal artists who first pick up a paint brush in their seventies and paint a masterpiece pattern of dots, all the same color, on a canvas. Simple, you say. Until you try it. You discover that the meaningless jangle of pretty dots has a pattern and that there is vast range of color hiding. Maybe the magic of great simplicity is that it that it subdues great complexity, breaking it into bite sized morsels that slide deliciously down.
The Artist just hints at complexity, particularly in the way that it deals with Valentin’s pride. It’s not a theme that we modern audiences are used to dealing with and it would be exciting to really explore it. But The Artist doesn’t. Instead it contents itself with simplicity (the simple kind) and delivering a re-hash of what has so often been done before.
Directed by: Michel Hazanavicius
Written by: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie
Released by: La Petite Reine / Warner Bros. / The Weinstein Company / Entertainment Film