Thursday, 12 January 2012

Déjà view: The Artist Review

It’s fair to say that the success of The Artist has been unexpected. An anachronistic revival of silent cinema by a group of French filmmakers practically unknown outside of their home country, sans star wattage or worthy themes, it has enjoyed commercial success and critical plaudits regardless. Harvey Weinstein, hotshot producer and notorious Hollywood bullyboy, has even thrown his considerable weight behind bagging it the Oscar for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. In light of the underdog success story with which it arrives laden – perhaps detrimentally – at UK theatres, it’s a shame that the film itself fails to deliver entirely on its intriguing premise.

  The problem lies principally with the screenplay, which borrows heavily from Singing in the Rain to weave its glossy story of riches to rags and back to riches amongst the Hollywood golden age. George Valentin, played ably and with an uncanny resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks by Jean Dujardin, is a silent-era movie actor who revels in his fame and fortune. Unluckily for him, the times they are a-changin’, specifically from silence to sound, and he swiftly finds himself out of work and out of favour with the public as young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) – with whom he is besotted – inversely experiences a meteoric rise to the A-list. Considering that the film is only 100 minutes in length, this somewhat clichéd narrative still feels stretched too thin to support its running time. There are no subplots and few other characters beside the central pair are given any significant screen-time or fleshing out, which unfortunately means that Valentin’s extended period of despair and career meltdown begins to feel overwrought, fairly aimless and dare I day it, slightly tedious.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some dynamic sequences dotted here and there; the film comes alive the most when it surrenders fully to the romance of the movies, as when George and Peppy fall in love over the course of several aborted takes during shooting for his latest adventure movie or in the almost empty auditorium where Valentin watches his onscreen self in his first flop sink inexorably into a pool of quicksand, taking his career with it. Director Michel Hazanavicius also manages to rouse the proceedings in time for a breathless final act replete with deadly house fires and a showstopping dance routine, but sadly it’s too little too late to save the film from its lack of momentum.

  It’s also telling that many of the most striking visual and sonic devices employed by Hazanavicius are lifted directly from American classics like Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard; we are treated to facsimiled images like the group of silhouetted figures watching a camera projection or the marital breakdown over the breakfast table. And towards the end a segment of Bernard Herrman’s extraordinary score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo is interpolated to ratchet up the tension. Whilst it’s undeniably fun for a hopeless film buff (that’ll be me) to play spot the references, the film fails to invest them with any new vitality or meaning. Unless one has the gift for postmodern mixtape-filmmaking of Tarantino or the Coen brothers, it’s unwise to rely too heavily on the rich associations evoked by these allusions. Not because it can be construed as an act of artistic rape as actress Kim Novak recently alleged, but since by invoking masterpieces of yesteryear the work invites inevitably unflattering comparisons. 
  It’s possible that The Artist plays better to those who have little or no prior experience of silent cinema, since the film does have fun by exploiting the novelty of the form in our time, most memorably in the gag towards the end of the picture predicated on an ambiguous title card…To those who already have an existing interest in early cinema however, this novelty will quickly wear off and when it does it has less to flaunt underneath its alluring exterior than one might desire. Instead of standing on an equal footing with the great silents of the first years of the 20th century, it functions more as a ghostly echo of their past glories – initially striking, yet ephemeral and ultimately insubstantial.