The Artist was one of those movies that was designed for me to like it. It was a French silent film shot in black and white that was a big, fat love letter to the dawn of cinema and to some of my personal heroes, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It had dancing and the delicious Jean Dujardin smiling a lot and cute dogs. The Artist even features the beloved John Goodman, the underused Malcolm MacDowell and (for about two seconds) the criminally underrated character actress Missi Pyle, who you might know as Violet Beauregarde’s mom in the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wasn’t I happy to see Missi Pyle getting work? What could possibly be wrong with this picture?
That movie, to me, felt the same way I feel about some of the dates I go on: They’re nice and charming and on paper they are perfect. They listen to all of your jokes and hold your hand while you sip milkshakes and skate around the ice rink, simultaneously. Everything about them is nice and agreeable, and you have a perfectly nice time. You then forget they ever existed. The same goes for The Artist, which is so busy trying to be affable and get loved by everyone that it forgets to leave much of an impression. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen the film and, without a Wikipedia plot synopsis, I would have forgotten that the movie even had one, and without it winning every award in sight, I would have forgotten it ever existed.
To its credit, The Artist is a flawless mimicry of everything we loved about silent films. As a devoted Chaplin fan, I enjoyed seeing the film recreate the period’s whimsical romantic touches and sense of wonder about the medium of cinema, a feeling you get from so few films today. Because of the relative newness of cinematic expression, such films as Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera are about what the filmmaker can get away with in this new medium, the possibilities of this new world that filmmakers are exploring. I remember when Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German came out, critics took Soderbergh to task for relying so heavily on black and white and the touches of early cinema. Soderbergh’s film, which took place in 1945 Berlin, was criticized for being an “exercise in style,” as film critic Anthony Lane put it. Doesn’t Soderbergh know what Vertov could have done with the technology we have today? He would have killed to even have access to Final Cut.
When The Artist debuted in the states, I expected it to get hammered with the same criticisms — because that was my same problem with director Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to days gone by: it’s purely locked into the past. Although a few moments in the film share Vertov and Chaplin’s awe of cinema’s limitless potential (see: the magical arm scene), The Artist was too pleased with its referential aping of the way we used to make movies. It was basically saying to us, “Oh, you know that movie you loved 90 years ago? Well, here’s that movie again, except with less actual story and more artifice.” Making The Artist was no different than Hollywood’s endless recent remakes of “classic” films like Red Dawn and Total Recall. However, in this case, the movie could technically claim to be its own property, unless it was secretly some Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer movie I don’t know about. Perhaps they’d call it Silent Movie?
If it were a parody film, The Artist’s lack of narrative specificity would at least make sense, but as its own work, there’s no there there in the story. The gist of the movie is that a rich guy isn’t rich anymore and mopes about it for a couple hours until a pretty girl tells him she loves him and he gets rich again. Although Jean Dujardin is a terrific actor and it’s easy to see why he won that Oscar, I don’t see what the point of telling his story exactly was, except to affirm hollow platitudes about going for your dream, believing in yourself, thinking big and all that haw haw haw. He finds love in the end, and they all lived happily ever after, but why am I supposed to care?
When Chaplin finally ends up with the blind girl of his dreams in City Lights, his desire and longing for her is so palpable that your heart can’t help but leap with joy. The moment feels not only earned but necessary for both his happiness and ours. In The Artist it just feels inevitable, because Hazanvicius doesn’t give us characters to really root for. When Berenice Bejo’s character (aka the supposed love interest) would leave the screen, I would sometimes forget she was still in the movie until she reappeared. Wong Kar Wai’s romances are likewise told with an emphasis on mood over character, but his characters are drawn with so much specificity and the performances are given with so much skill that we don’t need to know that much about them. In the case of Hazanivicius, it’s like he’s just relying on Chaplin (whose City Lights is referenced hard) to do the work for him.
Instead of relying so heavily on homage to tell its story, The Artist could have benefited more by making the silent modern. Although it’s great to see that Michel Hazanvicius and his crew remember the past, they add little to the conversation that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo aced. Hugo uses films of the past to make a strong case for the preservation of film, because without the past, we cannot know who we are today. As a vehicle for what is a very personal message, Scorsese’s style is the perfect argument for the importance of film history: he blends the romance of the past with the 3D technology of the present to make something unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Sure, The Artist understands the style of the past, but it has no sense of the story mechanics that gave silent films such passion or how it fits into the cinematic present. It just feels like something we’ve seen before — and better.