There are small pleasures to be found in The Artist, the homage to silent movies that is, for most of its running time, also silent. Beautiful black and white cinematography is always a joy to behold on the big screen, and there are some very nice shots. There are a couple of laughs, and the film features one of the great modern dog performances.
But there’s not much else to be found in The Artist. Shockingly empty, mostly bland and often kind of boring, The Artist is a fine technical exercise but offers little else beyond the gimmick of a silent film in 2011. Worst of all, The Artist doesn’t even make a particularly convincing argument about why we should care for silent film. Where Scorsese’s Hugo makes silent filmmaking feel vital and present, the whole point of The Artist is how outdated it is.
Which means that yes, it’s another film about how the talkies killed silent films. If you’ve never seen Singin’ In the Rain this might be fascinating territory, but The Artist is no Singin’ In the Rain. The Hollywood story is less than half-baked, and the other plot element - a love story - isn’t doing much better.
George Valentin is a silent movie superstar, and an egomaniacal goof. At the premiere of his latest movie he ends up photographed with a fan, who over the course of the next few years rises from extra to star. As her career goes up, his goes down - George refuses to do talkies. He sinks all his money into one last silent film, which bombs. Then the stock market crashes and he’s finished.
That’s like the end of act one. Most of the film is George being stubborn and making bad decisions and wallowing in self-pity. Why does this woman, Peppy Miller, stay in love with this guy as he pisses his life away? I’m not sure, but it’s the crux of the film’s love story. And that love story is rote and bland.
I guess you could make some kind of argument that Peppy, the avatar of the talkies, and George, the symbol of the silents, form a bridge to the future of cinema, but that would be putting a lot more weight on filmmaking than The Artist actually does. There are a couple of winks and homages to the earliest years of the movies, but they’re not particularly incisive, and the film seems to have just about nothing to say about film - silent or otherwise.
It seems pretty obvious that the setting is just an excuse to employ the film’s central gimmick. Director Michel Hazanavicius does a decent job of approximating the concept of silent films (but not the reality. There's way too much modernism in the camerawork), and much of the cinematography is handsome. But this isn’t enough to sustain a motion picture. It makes for a good short.
Jean Dujardin plays George, and he has the perfect look of a silent movie heartthrob. Dujardin and Hazanavicius worked together on the comedic OSS 117 films (which are throwbacks to 60s spy films - if these two keep going back in movie history they’ll end up making a flipbook), and the director gets a nice performance out of his lead, especially in the early parts of the film when George is still basically likable.
Bérénice Bejo, who plays Peppy, has lovely big silent movie eyes, but there’s nothing for her to get across with them. The girl enters the movie in love with Valentin and is always in love with him. There’s not much else to it. It’s a shame, because I think she would be great given some sort of conflict or tension or activity in which to partake.
There are some American actors as well - John Goodman as a studio president, and James Cromwell as an infuriatingly loyal servant - but the show is stolen by Uggie, who plays The Dog. The Dog is George’s constant companion, and he’s the funniest and best thing in the movie. Every moment when Uggie wasn’t on screen I wondered how long before he returned. Someone give him his own spin-off, please.
Film fans will be happy to know that there are some other great faces that pop up - Malcolm McDowell is in it for five seconds, Bill Fagerbakke has a walk on and Ezra Buzzington comes out of nowhere being all Buzzington for a few moments. The Artist is not lacking for acting talent.
It’s not that The Artist is bad (although it drags so much in the middle that it comes very close), it’s that The Artist is a trifle. There are nice moments in the film, some lovely moments, but they never add up to anything with meaning, to anything with weight or anything with impact. If The Artist truly were from the period it’s about, it would be a minor film that occasionally played on TCM at 3AM, and about which even hardcore silent film fans wouldn’t care much.