Monday, January 23, 2017

Decade of Best Pictures: THE ARTIST

Welcome back to the first DECADE OF BEST PICTURES series of reviews where we will be taking a look at a decade of Best Picture winners over the course of 10 days. In this series we will be looking at the decade of Best Pictures from 2005-2015 in reverse chronological order! This fifth entry will be for the 2011 Best Picture winner THE ARTIST!

The Artist is the 2011 silent picture from director Michel Hazanavicius. This film tells the story of a silent film actor just as talkies are beginning to appear. Over the course of the film he believes that true art is in silent cinema but becomes increasingly more irrelevant as the talkies take over and his journey of understanding. The film stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, and John Goodman. Overall, I think The Artist is a film with a somewhat interesting story and some neat elements, but falls victim to its gimmick. In combination with its critical and awards success, this film has earned a certain infamy in some circles of film fans.

I will start this review with positives because, even though I think The Artist is fairly lackluster, it does certain things really well. As part of the overall gimmick of being a silent film, it is also shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and in black and white. Though I find the aspect ratio truly unhelpful, this film nails black and white cinematography. Each frame of this film is near perfectly captured and in a world that no longer shoots much in black and white it is impressive to see the ways the director and cinematographer shot this film to make the black and white palette visually exciting.

Moreover, this film has a great score and solid silent dance choreography and acting. Ludovic Bource composed the film and, for most of it, it is the only thing you hear. It influenced much of the audience’s emotions throughout the story and it was a really pleasant thing to listen to as you’re taking in the story. Moreover, the work that all of the actors do in this film was fairly impressive. None of them do silent films so to do that is really stepping out of their comfort zone and there really wasn’t a weak link in that area. Dujardin, in particular, is excellent and does an admirable job showing the sheer frustration and occasional madness of a character that is often covered by a layer of stardom and charisma.

The last couple things I want to shout out in this film are the dog and one scene involving the dog that was especially well directed. Dujardin’s dog in this film is one of the cutest and most adept animal performances I have ever seen. It absolutely enthralled me and for an animal to do that is impressive. It was more than just cute though, it had a legitimate emotional (and plot) purpose which was really cool. Finally, there is one scene where the dog is trying to save Dujardin from a dangerous situation and the way the scene is directed silently with a great score was captivating and really got me invested and nervous.

 The problems with The Artist are pretty profound for me, and most of them center around the filmmaking gimmick. This did not need to be a silent film and I think it suffered greatly for it. The basic story of the film can work. An artist in one medium realizing that it is no longer relevant and can no longer be an avenue for success is a tried and true story that can be extremely effective. However, the choice to make a genuine silent film (with caption cards and everything) adds a layer of separation between the audience member and the characters in the story. We’re used to, as people and (more importantly) as modern audience members, hearing people speak. The way people speak and intonate are incredibly important to how we relate to people and to have this layer between us and the characters makes it more difficult to do that. Moreover, to have such a limited time to do that as well makes it even more difficult. This barrier caused me to fail to empathize and understand Dujardin’s character (or really any character in the film).

The failure to relate to the characters is, of course, very important, however, I think that the filmmakers also show a deep misunderstanding of silent cinema in both their story and in their use of it. Silent cinema wasn’t a thing because anyone wanted it to be. We couldn’t record actor’s voices! That is fundamentally why they were made and they lasted somewhat into the talkie era because people had become used to them. This is a film that holds a certain nostalgia for all the wrong things and uses that nostalgia to tell a story that fails because of the nostalgia. Certainly artists, even today, make interesting experimental things that are dialogue-less, but this isn’t that. This is a straight up homage to days gone by that are gone for good reason. We’re better at making films, from a technical perspective, then ever before and this film decides to drop all of our abilities out of a love that is, to me, misguided.

There is one interesting thing about The Artist’s gimmick that lovers of this film call out. They rightly say that when you hear sounds, first in the dream, then the tap-dancing, then the speech at the very end, it shocks the conscience and hammers home the story in a powerful way. I don’t disagree with them entirely. It was in those moments that the film most engaged me. They come in at times that are surprising and do move you as an audience member through a variety of emotions. However, it is the fact that I was most engaged as an audience member when everyone finally started to talk that is emblematic of the problem. Everyone in this film is talented. They all have the ability to move the audience as a modern actor but are denied the opportunity to do so which is, perhaps, why the movie left me extremely disappointed rather than in love with this homage to cinema-past.

Overall, The Artist isn’t a bad film. Not at all. It is, however, a film that falls victim to a major filmmaking choice that turned me off and failed to make the story land when it really should have. It is, also, a film that falls victim to negativity because, although it’s not bad, it isn’t good enough to merit the critical praise (or awards success) that it eventually received.

Ryan’s Score: 6/10

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