The Artist Movie Review

The following critique is the work of long-term Boomtown Rap commenter Karen, who describes herself as a “cinema lover and reading junkie”. Karen’s astute and often challenging remarks and observations in response to my reviews have kept me on my toes as a critic. It recently occurred to me to ask her to consider doing some reviewing in her own right. She graciously agreed.

There’s a scene early in The Artist that exemplifies its themes and charms us at once: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the silent movie idol, playing the lead in one of a string of genre dramas (A Russian Affair, A German Affair), must cross a dance floor en route to a meeting with an army officer. Through take after take, he prepares his face for derring-do, complete with narrowed eyes, and seeks his rendezvous. But he bumps into our heroine, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), an extra in this film-within-a-film, and must dance with her briefly. Each time, the two leads, feeling a mutual fascination, dance too long, or get the giggles, and the scene needs to be reshot. Watching these actors playing characters playing characters is not only a delight – it’s also a précis of how acting style has evolved since the filmmaking business was a pup.

George’s methods are straight out of vaudeville, and with sound technology emerging in the late 20s, filmmakers are looking for more subtlety and less mugging for the camera, as Peppy herself explicitly says in an interview as her career takes off.

There’s a lot to admire and like in this film. It’s a classy piece of work, and while some film-goers have actually walked out when they realised it was a silent movie, plenty will stay to enjoy (and in the case of true cinephiles, notice) the camera work, lighting effects, costuming and set decoration, all of which are true to the period.

The casting is brilliant: Dujardin has suave, manly good looks, and Bejo is perky, cute and adorable as the by-name-and-nature Peppy. Even the minor characters have that 20s look about them: bouquets to the costume, hair and makeup departments. There are cleverly set up scenes too, that act as metaphors for what is happening: George is going downstairs, while Peppy’s going up; George even sinks in quicksand.

Dujardin and Bejo as George and Peppy

If you’re sensing a “but…”, you’re right. This stylishly told tale of changing technology, a man’s pride and refusal to change, and a sassy “it” girl making good is, in the end, a melodrama – or, since it’s also funny, a melodramedy. The humour ameliorates the melodrama somewhat, as it often gives the nod to the audience with its subversive take: for example, George’s disaffected wife whiles away the hours (beautifully dressed, in their palatial house) drawing comic moustaches and blackening teeth on his publicity photographs; and a title card from George’s last-ditch silent movie has his dying words to his female lead unexpectedly as “I never loved you!”

There’s more subversion of the genre in its narrative: this time it’s the girl who must go to the rescue of the male lead, though she does it in typically careering-automobile fashion. And when the fabulous sidekick dog (unnamed in the film, Uggie in real life) scampers off for help, the policeman he tries to communicate with is not inclined to take any notice whatsoever, till a female bystander urges him to respond.

The music underscores (oops!) the melodrama, though, in a most unsubtle way, and a brilliant sequence where George dreams of hearing ambient noise (the sound of a glass being placed on a table, a telephone ringing) only made me realise how much I like – and missed in The Artist – a good varied sound track.

I have another reservation that’s thematically more important. The ending, which I won’t give away, makes George’s reluctance to embrace the new technology entirely explicable and understandable. No character makes mention of what is revealed to us, and yet it is quite material to the issue; it’s a fact deliberately withheld to enable the comic sting, while we believe it’s George’s pride and aesthetic that have misled him to ruin.

These are minor quibbles though, about a work that so brilliantly realises director Michel Hazanavicius’s love for cinema history. His film about filmmaking, with its light touch, lets the audience go behind the scenes and share the magic he obviously feels. That director at the end who is so mesmerised he forgets to call “Cut!” is played by Bob Glouberman – but I bet it’s Hazanavicius in spirit.

Michel Hazanavicius on set during the making of ‘The Artist’

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8 thoughts on “The Artist Movie Review”

  1. Nice review, Karen!

    Not much we differ on.

    Intriguing, the silent aspect. It was sorta strange for me to begin with, but I found myself adjusting to the mode fairly readily, much in the way you ‘tune in’ to the language of Shakespeare after an initial struggle. Once that adjustment had been made, I didn’t miss the sound at all. And when it came (in the parts you mention), it was all the more dramatic.

    Of course, it wasn’t really a silent movie – as you say, there was a musical soundtrack that was a little intrusive at times. Despite this, I thought it worked very well overall, and in plugging the gap of the live orchestra (or more commonly, sole pianist) that accompanied silent movies, was stylistically appropriate.

    I didn’t see as a flaw the ‘aha’ moment at the end that reveals a major factor in George’s reluctance to migrate to talkies – for me, it was a delightful and unexpected final note of resolution. I don’t see how it could have been pre-figured without spoken dialogue. How would you have envisaged this happening?

    Loved the three main characters: George, Peppy and the dog. As you say, inspired casting. I think that this, and the informed affection and respect for the early form of film that is at the heart of The Artist, are its great strengths, and central elements in its triumph as a most unlikely and irresistably endearing hit.


  2. Thanks, Rolan.
    I reckon that much in the same way as the conventions of mystery/detective novels prescribe that the reader should have the same clues as the sleuth, we ought to have known that there was a logical impediment to George’s having an ongoing career in talkies. The producer character (John Goodman) could have mentioned it (in a title card), or George’s wife, or Peppy, and each of those would have had a different take on his possible courses of action. Natch, this would have eliminated the final sound-gag, but it would have given the story much more integrity, for me at least.
    But plenty of people will, like you, not have a problem, and even if folk agree with my perception of this as a structural flaw, I don’t think it will prevent them from enjoying the film immensely.
    What do you reckon, four stars?

  3. But they didn’t use title cards in the film, did they? Without them, I can’t see how it would have been possible to communicate the information about George we’re referring to (hmm, this spoiler consciousness makes communication on this aspect of the film a little awkward!). My recollection is that the entire movie was acted out without the use of text-based props – but I could easily be misremembering and stand to be corrected on this.

    Regardless of whether it would have been possible to avail the viewer of this crucial info without sound, I don’t see withholding it as a structural flaw because I think it’s appropriate to the silent form and dramatic genre of the pic. I accept this narrative manipulation much as I would the deployment of the device of extraordinarily convenient coincidence in Dickens. ie: I see it as a function of style in the context of an earlier time in the life of the artistic form.

    Yep, if I had to give it a star rating (which I generally don’t like doing) I’d go with you on 4 stars. But for anyone with more than a passing interest in film, I’d call it a unique must-see. In fact, I want to see it again. As mentioned to you in an earlier communication, I was a bit dopey with tiredness when I saw it, and was not fully alert for the first 1/3 or so. For me, it cries out for a second viewing at full concentration.

    Enjoyable and illuminating exchange, as usual.


  4. Ha ha, for you, Rolan, it is definitely a must-see-again! Yes, there were title cards, which contributed to the humour, character development (you must have been napping when George responded to his wife’s declaration that she was unhappy!), and narrative.
    I don’t mind a last-minute revelation in a story, but it should evoke an “ah, yes” type of reevaluation, rather than a “wtf”. Well, “wtf” is a bit harsh, because after all it is a charming and funny ending; maybe more a “wait a minute”. Think The Sixth Sense for a well-executed sting in the tail.
    Here, it’s definitely an “ah, yes” for George’s motivations, but not consistent with anyone else’s. Also, I’m not at all sure how Peppy’s solution was going to work out – was George not to speak in those roles either?
    Yes, I agree the star rating is a blunt instrument (if that’s your reason for not doing it); I just wanted to indicate again that despite my criticisms, it’s a film well worth seeing.
    Bring on the next film and comments stoush!

  5. I was never ‘napping’, Karen. Just a little, er, submerged. And I may not have recalled the title cards even at full focus. Memory not terrif!

    I was hoping you’d respond to my point about form, genre and style-of-the-time. Title cards aside, that’s my main defence of the ending, and why I question the validity of your crime genre analogy – ie: it doesn’t take into account era-related form or stylistic convention.

    Your observations are well and good for detective/crime stories, but not for Dickens (to harken back to my example), given the accepted literary conventions of his time. Ditto, I say, for silent film melodramas cw the ‘talkies’ that are now the norm. In fact, I submit that the aspect of the ending we’re diverging on is most appropriate, since it looks simultaneously to the past (silent films) and the present, as well as neatly and to my mind satisfyingly completing the narrative and filling in the final strokes of George’s character. I’m always impressed by that sort of multi-meaning multi-functional device, as long as it serves the narrative well. Which I think it does, and you think it doesn’t! I say this is where we reach an impasse. You?

    My objections to the star system equate to those I outlined in my criticism of ’10 best/worst-movies-of-the-year’ lists in my Boomtown Rap Movie Awards for 2011 (see first two paras).

    Next stoush pending…!


  6. I thought the ‘aha’ moment was there as a post-narrative reminder that this movie about Hollywood we’d just enjoyed so much without the need for sound was a French production.

  7. Now why didn’t Karen or I pick up on that in our exchange on “that moment”? Nice one, Judith! Do call again – contributions like yours needed and most welcome.


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