Unfortunately, this year’s Best Picture favorite The Artist is such an exercise in patience. The technical mastery of the film is undoubtedly impressive, boasting the same aspect ratio as films of the silent era, an authentic and propelling score by Ludovic Bource and breathtaking black-and-white cinematography. I spent most of the beginning wondering how cinematographer Guillame Schiffman created all those expressionistic shadows. It also contains a lot of nice touches, such as evolving camera movement as the movie traverses a five-year period in cinema. But after the novelty wore off, the film proved itself boring and, ultimately, meaningless.
It’s not hard to imagine why The Artist has become such a favorite amongst Academy voters (which the LA Times recently uncovered as a primarily white male demographic, unsurprisingly and critics. In an age in which box office revenues are sinking (2011 attendance was at its lowest since 1992) and 3-D films are threatening the traditional cinema experience, this return to a pioneering cinema format champions old-school Hollywood. If it wins Best Picture, The Artist will be the first silent film to be awarded the Oscar in 80 years. Boosted by awards powerhouse studio The Weinstein Co., the film’s popularity shows Hollywood self-congratulation at its worst.
But once you study its story of the Hollywood transition to sound, The Artist fundamentally lacks emotional or thematic substance. The script just doesn’t give the characters enough authenticity to do credit to the technical prowess. As a silent star that refuses to partake in talkies and consequently ruins himself, George Valentin (an undeniably charming Jean Dujardin of OSS 117 fame) only depicts a stereotypically self-obsessed actor. In the meantime, actress upstart Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) flourishes in sound films while proving that her only defining attribute is, well, peppiness. There’s a dramatic mise-en-scène of George descending a studio staircase as Peppy ascends — yes, the thematic elements are all very subtle.
Due to the lack of emotional investment in the characters, when the script attempts to take the story into dark places, the viewer can’t take it seriously. In one pivotal sequence, the film inserts a song from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). This choice has been under fire ever since Vertigo star Kim Novak dramatically protested the borrowing of “Scène d’Amour”.
While I obviously wouldn’t go so far as to term it as she did, I agree it was a poor decision. In addition to the fact that the song is anachronistically inserted and thematically unconnected to the accompanying scene, a viewer familiar with arguably the most complicated of all Hitchcock’s films will automatically perceive just how fluffy The Artist really is underneath its enthusiastic exterior. I, for one, spent the rest of the film thinking how I would much rather be watching Vertigo.
So when The Artist wins Best Picture as movie news sources have indicated, don’t go out and rent it just because it won. Instead, watch a silent classic like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920), Metropolis (1927), Battleship Potemkin (1925) or City Lights (1931). To this day, these films are still astonishingly more entertaining than The Artist. Or go watch a worthy Best Picture nominee that reflects this year in all its depth and convolution. I suggest Tree of Life or Moneyball.
Tags: cinephile, film