My mother once told me that if I had nothing nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s advice I ignored in the most flagrant manner possible when I became a professional (if dubiously credentialed) critic. However, I’m reminded of the maxim as I sit down to write my review of this year’s darling of the awards circuit, Michel Hazanavicius‘ almost-silent film The Artist – and not just because its characters keep schtum throughout.
It had the French swooning at Cannes, and has since picked up nearly every Best Picture prize from the incalculable number of ceremonies that annually hand out such awards. The film has arrived at our shores on an unparalleled (in recent memory) wave of hype that any low-budget indie film would dream of. But it is hype that might elevate expectations beyond what this cute yet underwhelming and totally disposable flick can adequately satisfy. It’s not that I have nothing nice to say about The Artist; in fact, there’s plenty about the pic to endorse. But this will be a tempered review, and I feel that might actually be better for the film in the long run. Lowered from its pedestal, it is hard to deny The Artist is sweet and occasionally fun. But Best Picture of the year? I’m left – literally – speechless.
French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius (hah-za-nah-vish-us; it’s the most delectable-to-pronounce European auteur name since Aki Kaurismäki) whisks us to Hollywoodland circa 1927. Jean Dujardin plays silent movie star George Valentin, a slick, Clooney-esque charmer who sees no threat to his livelihood when talkies begin to take the world by storm. When the appropriately named extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) steals a kiss from Valentin outside a movie premiere – snapped by Variety and placed on their front page – she sees her status skyrocket. George, who is somewhat enamoured by the perky ingénue, gives her the big break she needs and casts her opposite him in his latest blockbuster. But as she becomes the talk of the town and begins to enchant as the lead in her own features, he and his precious art form fades into obscurity. Not even the eternal companionship of his canine sidekick (Uggie, who legitimately gives one of the year’s best performances) can cheer him up.
Dujardin and Bejo offer wonderful – and hopefully star-making outside of their native France – turns as George and Peppy respectively. They’re physical performers perfectly suited to the heightened requirements of a silent film; expressively eyed, fast footed and almost comically gorgeous. But here’s where Hazanavicius lets them, and his audience, down: he doesn’t call upon their physicality nearly enough. If this were to be a true tribute to the silent film era, why didn’t he go all out and embrace the exaggerated and imaginative? Although he doesn’t exactly eschew slapstick and melodrama, Hazanavicius does not convey either in a particularly visually-appealing manner. And though the movie is technically ‘silent’, it is not as if the film favours ‘showing’ over ‘telling’. Much dialogue is still related from character to character, which would still be fine so long as there were still plenty of sequences in which emotion and meaning were relayed without the use of words. And that is so rarely the case.
The appeal of the three leads – yes, we include Uggie – as well as a few novel sequences – one involving an empty tuxedo jacket, and the charming finale – make The Artist a mostly enjoyable watch. However, Hazanavicius’ half-hearted tribute to black-and-white silent films seems more like a gimmick than a particularly unique or refreshing attempt to share a meaningful story in an entertaining way. If you’re looking for an enchanting film about the early days of cinema, watch Hugo. Should you be in the market for a romance about an up-and-coming movie star in the age of the talkies, revisit Singin’ in the Rain. For those intrigued about the awful after-lives of elderly silent movie stars, see Sunset Boulevard. However, if you want to see some spectacularly adorable if not particularly lasting or memorable dog tricks, The Artist is the film you’ve been waiting for.
The Artist arrives in Australian cinemas February 2, 2012.