The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Artist

Written by Paul Cuff.

Photo from the article I’m hoping to avoid doing something I dislike critics doing: judging a film by what it isn’t, by what it doesn’t do. Yet The Artist inspired in me such a strong feeling of something being missing that I feel obliged to try and explain why it left me a little cold. My love for silent films became a disadvantage to my enjoyment of this “silent” film, and this puzzled me.

Let’s start with faces. The performances in The Artist are uniformly enjoyable. The two leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, are charm personified. That said, it’s the way these performances are integrated into the aesthetic of the film and its period recreation that I found problematic. Bejo does not look like an actress from the 1920s or 30s. She is very beautiful, but beautiful in a specifically modern way. Put bluntly, she is too thin. When her face appears on the cover of a mocked-up fan magazine from the early 1930s, it seems conspicuously anachronistic next to Clara Bow and other beauties of the era. (Female stars had curves back then, you see.)

Bejo is perhaps the only face that really doesn’t feel right in The Artist - the rest of the cast fit in rather well. John Goodman is a delight as producer Al Zimmer - as physically imposing as you want a movie mogul to be, but as ingratiating as a giant teddy bear when he’s made to smile. Another great face is James Cromwell as Clifton, Valentin’s chauffeur. Malcolm MacDowell also has a great face, but you only get to enjoy it in one scene. (A shame, given how rarely he now seems to appear in anything worthwhile.) In any case, the period authenticity of faces need not be an issue if the cinematography itself recreates the “look” of the era. Yet, my major problem was that this is precisely what The Artist didn’t do.

There are so few real close-ups, that is: so few opportunities for us to revel in one of the most fundamental elements of silent film language. Faces can become extraordinary in black-and-white; their geography and texture is so much more tangible, our ability to notice their shifting tectonics all the more engaging. Stripped of any diegetic realities, silent cinema allows us to read into the people on screen our own thoughts, our own emotions. Its silence is also a sense of privacy - no one else on screen or in the world can intrude on us when we are absorbed in a facial close-up.

There were one or two scenes when The Artist gave room for this intimacy. Early on, when Peppy visits Valentin’s dressing room, there is a moment when they both realize their attraction to one another - and simultaneously realize that Valentin’s marriage denies them their freedom to say so. Valentin’s face suddenly loosens its controlled surface of charm. For one moment, we see real regret move across his features. The faint creases around his laughing eyes soften and his expression opens. The accompanying close-up of Peppy also sees an illuminating flash of pained emotion. The scene was a delightful reminder of what the language of silent film can do so well: concentrate the audience on reading faces, on reading gestures, on reading emotion into characters rather than having it explained by them. In this scene in The Artist, the characters say nothing and we hear nothing - yet there is a vivid instance of emotional communication. I was surprised by how affected I was by this tiny moment, and I wanted more - more glimpses of real emotion, more telling close-ups, more moments when cinematic language replaced the need for written/spoken language. The fact that the film seemed reluctant to explore this potential was a consistent problem for me.

An odder issue is that the “artist” of the title doesn’t seem to make great art. The few glimpses we have of his films don’t lead us to presume that they are anything artistically substantial. Valentin’s name is only a letter short of Valentino, though he looks more like Douglas Fairbanks crossed with John Gilbert. Yet none of the films we see him in suggest that they could compare to the quality of films by those silent stars. Whilst one of Valentin’s films contains shots from Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro (1920), most of the other clips look like cheaply-produced serials. There is no suggestion than Valentin’s real-life models produced anything like the scale of Robin Hood (1922), the artistic accomplishment of The Thief of Bagdad (1924), the drama of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) or The Big Parade (1925), nor the wit and dash of The Eagle (1926). It begs one to ask if we are meant to take the eponymous “artist” of Hazanavicius’ film seriously. Similarly, the glimpses we have of Peppy’s films suggest they are little more than rather vapid light entertainment. What is it about the silent era we are supposed to miss, if this is all the evidence we’re given?

The Artist itself is silent not because its cinematic qualities demand it to be or because Hazanavicius is making a case for this bygone era’s importance. The film is silent because silence suits its central theme. Valentin’s curse is his inability to speak. His wife and his producer beg him to talk, and his refusal loses him his marriage and his career. His incommunicability is his great flaw. Here silence is thus something to be overcome rather than celebrated. I find it very odd that a film supposedly celebrating silent cinema makes its audience long to hear the characters speak. When Valentin first encounters test footage produced with sound equipment, we see the film without hearing it. We can tell from his reaction that the acting is absurd, but there is no opportunity to hear how and why. There is nothing to suggest this supposedly disastrous clip is any less silly than his own silent work.

That night, Valentin has a surreal nightmare in which we hear sound from the The Artist’s story world for the first time. He is in his dressing room as before, but now he hears everything around him - objects in his room, his own footsteps, the birdsong outside, the laugher of others. The one thing he cannot hear is his own voice, shouting for help. It’s a haunting sequence - certainly the best and most imaginative of the film. (It’s also a far more unsettling and potentially interesting idea than anything else in the narrative.) We finally hear Valentin speak in the film’s final scene. His career in sound cinema is revived when he accepts the future and Peppy’s offer of collaboration. After a lengthy dance number, Peppy and Valentin hold their final pose into the camera. We hear them panting and out of breath, a nice touch that reveals the sheer physical effort of their performance. John Goodman then utters the first line in the film: “Cut! Perfect. Beautiful! Could you give me one more?” “With pleasure”, Valentin replies. The ultimate pay-off to this silent film is that it renounces its silence.

As with much else of the film, Ludovic Bourse’s score for The Artist is charming (there’s that word again) without being overly emotive. In fact, the most tellingly emotional moments are often when the music ends before a scene finishes and we are left in absolute silence. There was a cool gloss to the score which stopped me from truly engaging with the images. As I suggested in my short review, The Artist is a film whose relationship to the silent era finally remains ironic. I don’t think that any of the film’s sequences would only work as silent ones. There are no tour-de-force passages of rapid editing, no superimposition, no elaborate uses of masking or irises, little expressive camera movement, and barely any manipulation of focus or use of special lenses for close-ups. Most obviously, the photography looks exactly like what it is: crisp, modern, digital. Digital filmmaking can never reproduce the richness, depth, and grain of filmstock from the 1920s. The Artist makes no attempt at a compelling recreation of its era. This is odd, given that Hazanavicius’ previous films include two elaborate pastiches of 1950-60s cinema. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009) both recreate the era they parody much more elaborately, particularly the look of Eastmancolor filmstock.

I don’t want all this criticism to make it sound like the film is wholly lacking in skill or wit. There are some wonderful touches: Valentin dancing with Peppy when only her legs are visible behind a screen, the multiple retakes during which the two actors fall in love, Valentin’s shadow giving up on him and walking away across the wall… But a film needs more than moments to sustain its impact. The lack of visual experimentation, the whole basis of silent film language, was conspicuously absent from most of The Artist. Having been granted the quite extraordinary opportunity to make a large budget silent film, Hazanavicius seems to have played it pretty safe.

What this film is not is what I would love it to have been: a wholly sincere, un-ironic contemporary film entirely free of diegetic sound that utilized the full potential of silent cinema. Perhaps this would be impossible - but I would love to see someone try it. In the meantime, Hazanavicius has crafted a glossy, well-acted film. I am aware that most people won’t have the problems I had whilst watching The Artist. My reservations should in no way prevent anyone from going to see and enjoy this charming film. The Artist is a good film, but can’t hold a candle to the cinema of the silent era.

This Alternate Take was published on February 15, 2012.

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