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Monday, January 23, 2012  

M. Ovie Reviews: The Artist

As a silent movie released in the twenty-first century, The Artist is an intentional anachronism. A gimmick. A stunt. A feature-length gag. I love it unreservedly and unironically.

Appropriately, this silent film is about a silent-film star. As it opens in 1927, George Valentin is on top of the world. But of course the world moves out from under him when the talkies are invented. And thus commences his long, slow slide, made worse by the Great Depression and his own hubris. Of course it’s a familiar story. It’s a silent movie. You were expecting Tree of Life, maybe?

Obviously it’s not really silent. It’s got a score like the old silent films did, but obviously my local art house doesn’t have an orchestra pit, let alone an orchestra, so there’s a soundtrack. And ambient sound isn’t entirely absent for the whole thing, although to say more would give too much away.

I don’t want to try to come off as someone who knows much about silent cinema, because I really don’t. My dad checked some Super 8 Charlie Chaplin movies out of the library a couple of times and showed them on the basement wall when I was a kid, but that’s about the extent of my experience. Oh, and one Halloween in high school I saw Phantom of the Opera at what is now one of my former workplaces, the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul (known at that time as the World Theater), with Phillip Brunelle playing the organ. And I guess I should count Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, which I saw in Film Studies class in college. So feel free to go ahead and kick me in my pretentious head. But seriously, that’s it.

You don’t really need even that small amount of background to enjoy The Artist, though. Obviously the dialogue is pretty spare, and the subtitles (or "inbetweentitles," as the case may be) even more so. In the best silent film tradition, they're only used on thise rare occasions when you can't already guess what the actors are saying, and there are plenty of scenes with no talking at all, or almost none, and there are a lot of plot points communicated by characters silently showing each other newspaper headlines. So aside from a few of the talkier scenes, there's almost no interruption of the action. It also has some fun with the overall concept. After the old-school opening credits, the very first scene shows George in his latest movie playing a secret agent under torture, refusing to talk. Get it? He refuses to talk!

The movie has plenty of other, equally unchallenging symbolism, like the shitcanned George encountering the young starlet on a staircase (she's on her way up, he's on his way down) and the timely moment in one of his films when he's sucked down by quicksand, and the various ways he's an uncommunicative dick to his wife. And of course there's the whole theme of a guy trapped in a world that no longer exists, embodied by the fact that we're watching a silent movie, half of which isn't even set in the time of silent movies any more. But we're in on these obvious tropes, and we expect silent movies to be broad, so it doesn't feel like we're being insulted.

The cast is a bit more of a mixed bag. As George, Jean Dujardin is totally convincing as the dashing twenties-era movie star, with his pomaded hair, pencil mustache (which grows in as his fortunes decline), winning smile, and effortlessly physical acting style. John Goodman is at his rubber-faced best, constantly making me feel like he was born decades too late. However, the female lead, as good she is, has a 21st-century look that isn't quite de-Jessica Bieled by her chic bob; and oddly James Cromwell is the most inappropriately subtle actor in the film despite being the only one old enough to have been in silent movies (I exaggerate; he was born in 1940).

I think in the end, the amount you enjoy The Artist is proportional not to your feelings about silent films, but your feelings about Singin' in the Rain. In many ways, this story is almost a mirror image of that one (and the score doesn't go out of its way to not remind you sometimes). If Singin' in the Rain is Hamlet, then The Artist is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Much as I love The Artist.

posted by M. Giant 7:24 PM 1 comments


Well, the wife and I weren't sure what to see this weekend and (I may be the only one in the world to make this connection), you've won me over with your Idol recaps so The Artist it is.

You had me at Singin in the Rain...

By Anonymous Chris, at March 9, 2012 at 7:43 AM  

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