Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Artist - Good, But Not Best Picture-Worthy

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo,
stars of The Artist
I readily admit to feelings of dread and despair when I first heard that a new silent film had been released and was receiving universally rave critical reviews. A French director making a movie about the decline of the silent film era and using no spoken dialogue in the process? None for me, thanks. Call me skeptical by nature, and you would be right; call me shallow, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I imagined The Artist to be a haughty artsy thing, filled with cryptic imagery and laced with industry insider references, an esoteric critic's wet dream (albeit in black and white), that set out to prove something. As it turns out, my fears were mostly unfounded. 

The Artist revolves around the tragic demise of a silent film star named George Valentin and the smoldering passion of starlet Peppy Miller, his secret love interest. Third billing goes to Uggie, George's wonder-dog and constant companion, who provides charm and laughs, and a save-the-day rescue effort that would make Lassie proud. With these three stars, a more-than-adequate supporting cast, and a team of technical wizards, director Michel Hazanavicius does a phenomenal job of creating a film that manages to look like the films that were made eighty years ago, without feeling dated or out of place. 

There is no doubt that The Artist should be a major Oscar contender in the "style" categories - art direction, costumes, musical score - stuff like that. The performances of the lead actors, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, are also sublime and noteworthy. Considering the boldness of the concept and the aforementioned technical prowess of the film, Hazanavicius should be a top contender for Best Director as well. 

Having said all that, it's only logical for The Artist to be my choice for Best Picture, right? Not so fast.  For all that is has going in its favor, there are a few gaping holes in The Artist that all the style and technical mastery in the world just can't fill.

While The Artist proved, to my pleasant surprise, that a movie can be a high-minded critics' darling without being pretentious or incomprehensible, I need more from a Best Picture. I don't need computer-generated bells and whistles or a historically significant setting, nor do I require a complex and intricate plot full of clever twists and turnsbut I need a script - with words - spoken aloud.

If you want to be my Best Picture, I also need gravity, something in the story that matters to me. A poignant relationship that finally blossoms (or a crushing relationship that can never be repaired)? Civilization in danger? A struggle to overcome an obsession? Evil that just might win? Whales trapped in ice, for God's sake? This film never weighed me down, and consequently, it never lifted me up. Instead, I found The Artist to be charming, like a kindly old woman you meet at a bus stop. She remarks on the lovely blue sky, compliments you on your outfit, and says generally adorable things, but that doesn't mean you want to move in with her.

Lastly, I need connection. In The Artist, the inevitability of change forces George Valentin to take a deep introspective look in the mirror. (At various times, he literally makes repeated glances at his own portrait, contemplates his reflection in a glass table, and watches his shadow on a film screen, as he weighs his own relevance in the rapidly evolving film industry.) I'm sure it's hard to be a rich pampered actor who suddenly realizes the celebrity rug is being pulled out from underneath you, but honestly, I don't care. 

If you're a director, a film historian, or an octogenarian, The Artist may well be the "best" movie you saw this year. For me, The Artist was a unique technical marvel that was interesting enough. The Artist is about the movie business, and if you couple that with its high quality production value and technical mastery, film industry insiders may see The Artist as significant. My standard is a bit more universal and lofty though - a movie is deemed important because of what it says about us, not because of what it says about movies.

Related Posts: And the Oscar Goes To, Tinker Tailor Solider - Winner, Oscar Contest!, Movies Posters That Tell the Truth


  1. but what about the dog Jeff!?!?!?

  2. He's cute and all...but he didn't have any spoken lines either.

  3. Thanks for writing what I was thinking. Not a best picture. Put another way, we want the film equivalent of literature. It operates beyond the story the way Old Man and the Sea is more than a simple fish story. Decades of watching Oscars always leaves me feeling that there are political and other agendas dominating and little else.

  4. Thanks for the comment anonymous. I have to agree with your conclusion. Considering all the pre-Oscar buzz we typically hear about this or that studio "campaigning" for a film, I'm certain there's much more at play than meets the eye in the choosing of a winner.