Hitchcock blonde Kim Novak’s now famous (or infamous?) expression of displeasure for The Artist’s use of Bernard Herrmann’s classic Vertigo score may have caused a mini web-quake but how derivative is Michel Hazanavicius’ film, really? And how does that work to the film’s advantage and disadvantage?
Looking at the director’s other Jean Dujardin-starring films: namely the OSS 117 duo (Cairo Nest Of Spies and Lost In Rio), it’s obvious the man already had a love for aged Hollywood genre movies. OSS 117 channelling the James Bond franchise and 60’s spy capers perfectly. What elevated the films from being pure carbon-copy homages to great comedies, though, really was how its main star stood out from that world. This is a guy who may very well be as misogynistic and insensitive as early Bond himself but for him specifically it’s simply impossible to hide his clueless, bigoted views making him stick out like a sore thumb from an environment seemingly so stylish, clean and perfect (on the surface at least). It’s this disconnect which made the OSS 117 movies not only very entertaining but, most importantly, very funny.
With The Artist, Hazanavicius tries something different. The film not so much a spoof or a pastiche as an honest, straight-up loving homage to a specific era in filmmaking history. There’s no denying the Oscar-nominated film is very good: it looks the part, boasts a lot of heart and fantastic performances all around… and an awkward Malcolm McDowell cameo. So is it fair to pan the film for its use of a single (albeit iconic) piece of music? No. That said, the derivative nature of Hazanavicius’ film is such that, for anyone familiar with the genres explored, it’s all somewhat distracting.
The film’s main plot is pure Singin’ In The Rain: the emergence of the talkies affecting the life of a once respected silent performer as a nobody becomes a somebody overnight until she finally overshadows him completely. Making a silent film about the birth of the talkies is a joke in itself, and a good one at that. Which brings me to my next point: The Artist isn’t really funny, not by today’s standards anyway. It’s cute and definitely very amusing but the version playing in my head had George Valentin being a real jerk to all around him, starring in absurd sci-fi B movies and snapping his dog’s neck before laughing heartily. That type of thing. Maybe I’m crazy but The Artist feels incredibly restrained and remains that way to cater to a style whose authenticity in the film was never in question to begin with. In other words: The Artist seems to censor its own sense of humour, its own daring, childish jokes and personally, for someone who has seen what Hazanavicius and Dujardin can do, it makes for slightly incomplete viewing.
For all this talk of “artists” you never see George Valentin truly practice his craft. Dujardin nails the man brilliantly and yet had the film tapped into the sillier aspects of the character a bit more we could have had not only a George Valentin we can love but a George Valentin we can never forget. Yes Hazanavicius taps into that Gene Kelly grin and Errol Flynn-style corniness but it’s all handled so cutesily, so whimsically you never get to truly enjoy the pre-talkies Valentin. Instead of having him showcase his dog endlessly (a Thin Man reference in itself), why not have him show off absurd acrobatics, do something wild from one of his action movies in everyday life? We need to feel why this guy is such a star and not just another B movie actor. Again, the film taps into some of that but never goes the whole distance to stay safely grounded in its own whimsy.
Peppy Miller’s (Beatrice Bejo) rise to fame in the film is very reminiscent of Anne Baxter’s in All About Eve, there’s an obvious Greta Garbo reference in there somewhere, a bit of Sunset Boulevard and Fred Astaire-style tap dancing thrown in for good measure. The many references at the heart of The Artist really make the film more of a heartfelt nod to various genres and classics rather than an absolutely unique silent film of its own. Perhaps it should have referenced more silent films rather than talkies, have George Valentin go all Buster Keaton perhaps?
Oh well. As it stands, the best way to enjoy The Artist is to see it for what it is rather than for what it’s trying to do or should have done. It’s a playful little silent film, a loving Hollywood compilation, nothing more. Its story isn’t Earth-shatteringly powerful, its characters not completely new but if you stop being a nitpicking critic for a second and allow yourself to accept the many movie references made throughout the film you’ll have a great time. It’s a good movie and although its Oscar wins are debateable (where are La Antena’s Oscars?), the praise these guys are getting is well deserved based on their body of work so far so I can’t complain. Happy the dog wasn’t nominated though, I must say. It’s stolen enough of Jean Dujardin’s thunder I think.
Also: dogs can’t "act", they just… do things. Like smell asses and take shits.
Am I wrong?