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The Artist

The Artist

Love us, just please love us. We turn to dust if you're not loving us

dir: Michel Hazanavicius

I know this last year was the year of celebrating the early days of the cinematic art form, but, you know, let’s just chill the fuck out, at least a little bit, okay?

The Artist is an entertaining enough flick, there’s no doubt, but it’s not the second coming of Buddha Jesus or the second coming of silent and black & white movies. At least I hope not.

And yes, I’ll even grant that Jean Dujardin does a nice job as the main character, being George Valentin, and that Berenice Bejo is lovely as Peppy Miller, but the manner in which this flick is being lauded to the high heavens is a bit confounding, and more than a tad bandwagonesque.

That this maudlin, melodramatic tale has been nominated for Best Picture is slightly surreal, if not absurd, in this day and age, and speaks more to the way that a whole bunch of critics and reviewers, once a flick gains critical mass, are pulled along almost involuntarily praising something exorbitantly that they know is just ‘pretty good’. It’s like they’re watching an event at the Special Olympics and are getting way ahead of themselves.

George, in 1927, is an absolute star, a big bright shining star. His films, silent though they may be, play to packed houses, and everyone except his loathsome wife (Penelope Ann Miller) adores him. An urchin on the street who eventually calls herself Peppy, contrives a moment where the tabloids snap them together, thus kicking off her film career. They have a moment during a dancing scene where they seem to have fallen in pudding. I mean love, they’ve fallen in love. Sort of.

A couple of years later, silents are old news, George is old news, and Peppy’s star is truly in the ascendant. As her fortunes keep rising, George’s decline, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves, we are shown this from a scene where he and she have a chat on a staircase, after which she ascends, and he descends. The prospect of a noisy world freaks George out a lot. Though up to this moment the flick only had music, during a nightmare George ‘starts’ hearing sound in his world, knocking things over just to hear them, and becoming distraught as this ‘new’ sense washes over him. It's a weird but brilliant fourth-wall breaking bit.

That’s a pretty strong scene. With the Great Depression looming, George bets it all on a last hurrah silent film ,convinced that audiences will still come to see him. His flick, unfortunately, opens against Peppy’s latest, which everyone and their dog wants to see.

And then… and then the long death march through the dust bowl of the 1930s begins for George, who mopes, sulks and pouts, watching as everything he built up and achieved is slowly, actually, rapidly taken away from him.

The only ones to stand with him are his butler Clifton (James Cromwell) and his dog, even as there is someone out there who wants to help him out, to save him from himself, or from obscurity, or from the bottle. Once we get over the initial hardships that ruin George’s life, it becomes clear after a while that what stops George from moving on is his pride, a stubborn pride that stops him from being able to let go of what he once had, in order to find out what he can do now.

George’s despair eventually results in two stupid actions of self-destruction, one fuelled by whisky, the other by humiliation, and yet, of course, this is meant to be a crowd pleaser, so we still hope he’ll be able to claw his way out of the pit he’s dug for himself.

Now, I’m a gooey, treacly sentimentalist from way back, so I’m not immune to the film’s charms, or any film’s charms. I found George charming and such, and the cast around him entertaining enough, in that ‘big’ way they have to get across since it’s a silent movie. And that moustache of his is just brilliant. But the latter part of the flick really didn’t work as well for me as the earlier part. I’m sure if I see it again down the track, it’ll probably play differently for me, but the problem was I just didn’t find him sympathetic after a while. I did at first, but the wallow became too pathetic, and too self-generated for me to really sympathise with the character.

That being said, with whatever happens at the end, I was pretty happy. In fact, I had a big old smile on my face, because the flick truly managed a joyous ending, let alone a happy one. It really hit the spot and made up for long passages that, frankly, bored me.

Making a silent, black & white movie in this day and age might seem like a gamble, or like an arch affectation, but it paid off for all concerned, I guess. Few people, in this day and age, except for film wankers and pretentious clods, or just old people, bother to watch them, and rightly so. Except for the established ‘classics’, they’re really quite boring to watch. Our sensibilities, our expectations of how a story is told cinematically has thankfully changed. I’m not saying that every film I see has to be 3D High Def with shiny robots all over the place, but we can’t expect that there’s going to be much of a resurgence. The Artist is a one-off, and a pleasant enough one-off, but not one that’ll lead to revivals across the world.

Which is a bit of a shame. There are a whole bunch of awesome silent era flicks that I would happily watch, but none of them would I inflict upon other people who aren’t of a certain age or possessing a certain interest. The reason? They put people to sleep better than the best opium you could ever procure. People are just not used to the structure, the aesthetics, the overachieving music, anymore. Out of my modest film collection, only about ten of them are silents, and I watch them so infrequently that owning them seems like more of a pretentious excuse to pretend to be some sort of authority on cinema throughout the ages just because I’ve got a copy of Metropolis.

You know, like I pretend in these reviews. At the very least, I can appreciate what they tried to do, as in, what they did do in making this flick. It looks like a flick from the era, which I guess was crucial to sustaining the illusion, but we’re under no illusion that it’s really a flick from that era. It’s not as simple as just taking the colour out and cutting the sound. There’s a lot of storytelling that occurs in novel ways we just don’t see anymore because of all the other ways film makers have of getting stuff across. And it does it well, even if it requires people emoting and overacting like they’re doing a pantomime at Christmas time at a shopping centre.

HE’S BEHIND YOU!!! That kind of thing. Dujardin is charming, and rakish and all that, but I have to admit I got sick of his constant mugging and gurning in the way that you’d get sick of the sly grins, exaggerated facial contortions and winks of even the politest pick-up artist whose attentions you’re not interested in at a bar.

Eventually you mutter ‘just leave me alone’ in a low growl, and reach for the mace.

All that being said, I derived a certain amount of enjoyment out of it, and was reminded of a fair few films, and thought the use of sound, which was used so sparingly, was perfect in its sparing use. They also got the slightly sped up look of it right, giving it that added otherworldly look of times past that it so sorely needed.

But it’s not the Second Coming of the Silent But Deadly Golden Age of Hollywood, by any stretch. Let’s put a stake through the heart of that particular delusion right now, because anyone else who tries to get away with this should be laughed out of the industry.

7 times that dog was shamelessly exploited in this flick worse than a Penthouse Pet out of 10

“With pleasure.” – glad you’re having fun, cowboy – The Artist