Much like last year, it took me until the middle of the summer (with last year’s True Grit remake being the film with the very late DVD release), but I’ve finally finished all of 2011’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Artist. I would have had my review up sooner but I haven’t been feeling well ever since I had Chinese food with my family for dinner. I hate the way that I’m ultimately going to approach this film critically, but at this point, it’s the only way I can do it. I’ll do my best to talk about The Artist on its own terms, but as the film that won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I feel obligated to discuss how I feel about the awards that it won. I have a history of not agreeing with the film’s the Academy picks for Best Picture. As in, I haven’t agreed with the Academy on a Best Picture since Return of the King back in 2003. Unfortunately, 2011 is no different. Let there be no confusion. I think The Artist is a good film. I thought The King’s Speech was good last year. I just don’t think it’s a great movie and that the Academy was more impressed with the gimmicky nature of a well-made (as opposed to student) silent film than the ultimately simple and innocent nature of Michel Hazanvicius’ story. The fact that this film (especially in the direction department) beat The Tree of Life is one of the most egregious Academy fuck-ups since Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire beat Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood.
The Artist is a tragic spin on a story familiar to any fans of Singin’ in the Rain. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men at the height of the silent film era. His films are smash hits and just accidentally being photographed with George helps to catapult aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) to stardom. However, it isn’t all premieres and glamour for George (and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Uggy). He’s in a loveless marriage with his wife (which isn’t helped by his rakish ways) and his ego and pride isolate him from his colleagues in Hollywoodland (the original name of Hollywood in the 20s). Though it isn’t mentioned by name (unlike Singin’ in the Rain), the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the following rise of “talkies” destroys George’s career while Peppy finds fame as a “talkie” starlet. Out of pride, George refuses to make the transition to speaking roles, and he invests all of his money in one last great silent film. However, the movie flops at the box office at the same time that the stock market crashes to ring in the Great Depression. George is forced to sell off all of his belongings and watch his world (including his marriage) fall apart around him.
My feelings about the acting in this film are complicated. If we were judging the film on just how well Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo were able to ape the style of silent film stars like Lillian Gish or Rudolph Valentino, then they were a smash success. Particularly in the scenes where they are showing fictional films in the movie, Jean Dujardin nails the over-the-top (and let’s face it, ham-fisted) style that was the only way to get across emotion and/or exposition (in a weird sense of that word) when you couldn’t speak. However, both stars are guilty of the same kind of “mugging” for the camera that Peppy complains about in an interview once she’s a “talkie” star. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to Jean Dujardin’s performance when we see him going about his daily life. I understand that since he can’t speak, he has to emote a little bit, but when you compare his performance to far more subtle and nuanced roles like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, it’s sort of outrageous to realize that he won. Berenice Bejo’s performance was much more subtle but she was still guilty of more than her fair share of over-acting. Jean Dujardin was capable of delivering some truly great emotional moments (especially when he was in the throes of his depression), but it would only be especially impressive if we hadn’t had 80 years of more mature acting techniques since the “talkies” took over.
While I certainly believe that Terrence Malick’s direction/cinematography/genius with The Tree of Life is one of the greatest film achievements of the 2000s, I must concede that Michel Hazanavicius guided The Artist with a brilliant hand (even if the script wasn’t as perfect). Shot in a gorgeous and crisp black & white, The Artist is one of the better looking films of the year (though yet again, Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully shot films ever), and the movie does an excellent job of shooting a more modern, Manhattan-style black and white for the regular sequences and then adopting the more antiquated style for the movies within the film. There’s a nightmare sequence that was one of the most inspired moments of the film (and of 2011) where George is having a nightmare about his inability to transition to the “talkie” world and so everything else in the world can make noise except for him. It was very brilliant. The shadow and contrast work in the film was second to none as was the attention to period detail, and for fans of old films, you can revel in all of the little historical details that the film tries to get right from the costumes to the cars to the Hollywoodland sign (instead of Hollywood). Also, I will say that there is one Oscar the film totally earned which was for Best Score. I can’t remember the last movie I watched on here where I wanted to go out and buy the orchestral score, but The Artist inspired that reaction. It was a perfect recreation of the scores of yesteryear but honestly, it was better and more stirring than the scores of the past.
At the end of the day though, The Artist is the sort of congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past that the Academy eats up like candy lately. Much like the L.A. centric-Crash (which beat the far superior Brokeback Mountain), it’s a film that hits home to the L.A. voting bloc that decides the Oscars. It’s not the best film of the year, and if you’ve seen all of the nominees, I’m not sure how you could disagree with that statement. Of course, I’ve long suspected that the films that most often win at the Academy Awards contain at least some semblance of a mass-appeal factor. Perhaps, I can’t blame them for not always choosing the artsy films that I enjoy. That’s my preference. Other people have theirs. And like I said, The Artist is a good movie. It contains flashes of brilliance and I enjoyed it, but much like Forrest Gump (and the way it fucked over Pulp Fiction) or Titanic (and the way it screwed over Good Will Hunting and/or L.A. Confidential), I’ll always think of it as the movie that stopped Woody Allen or Terrence Malick from more deserving wins. It’s sad but true.
Final Score: B+