Everywhere you look, The Artist is being feted. 12 Oscar nominations, displays all over Euston station, adverts wherever the eye turns. The marketing wheels are cranking big time.
Hang on a second! Rewind that. What are we talking about? A silent movie set in 1927-32? Didn’t Mel Brooks do that one already? OK, his was an outright spoof, where The Artist is an affectionate pastiche, shot lovingly in black and white, and played with charm, conviction and charisma, especially by Jean Dujardin as a Douglas Fairbanks Sr-esque gung ho leading man of the silent era, milking the attention but having no Plan B when he is suddenly a forgotten hero. The audience moves on, the stars are caught in a time warp, suspended in aspic.
The plot is A Star Is Born revisited, a slight tale to be honest with the inevitable happy ending. The young ingenue is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), fresh as a daisy as she runs into the big star George Valentin, initially on the red carpet at his new movie, but then as an extra with whom he dances. His fortunes plummet as the silent era dies and Wall Street crashes, hers soar as the talkies flourish. A few well-known faces act with pathos and understatement – James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell in particular (how great to see McDowell back on the big screen!)
However, the star of the show, upstaging the entire cast, is the dog. A Jack Russell terrier in fact. Never act with animals or children, the old adage has it, and it was never far wrong. There was talk about there being an “Animals Oscar”, for which the horse in Warhorse and the dog in The Artist would go head to head. Alas, that idea could never work, since it would only show too many of our leading actors in a bad light. Too bad.
There are plenty of nice touches. The sparing use of sound is used to great effect and some laughs. The song and dance act between Dujardin and Bejo at the end, as they discover musicals, to the delight of John Goodman‘s studio head, is beautifully done. A touch of razzle-dazzle plus the pathos behind the scenes, that’s what these movies are about.
There is much that is formulaic and a very well-trodden path here, with the silence merely a gimmick to get the audiences humming – though it materially affects how the movie communicates its narrative and the feelings of characters. In fact, the use of the silent format also makes the audience think, which in my estimation is never a bad idea. Sometimes what is said is less important than how it is said, so conveying emotion and feeling without the distraction of audible words is no bad thing, particularly but not exclusively to someone (like me) with minor hearing difficulties who struggles with mumbling actors and the lack of subtitles on the big screen (I always use English for hard of hearing subtitles on DVDs, and recommend them to everybody, including those who hear perfectly!!)
But for all the qualities on show, I can’t help feeling this is not a movie worthy of 10 Oscar nominations. This is, in the final analysis, what Frank Lloyd Wright famously said about TV – “chewing gum for the eyes.” Where are the movies of substance, these days? Light entertainment has its place, but epics are a yawn a minute and there are few if any films with ideas and originality. Which is why most of the movies I watch are old and not new!
Watch The Artist, by all means. Sure you will enjoy it!