It’s fairly rare that Spokane audiences get a chance to see foreign films on the big screen. When one comes to town, you can be sure of two things: it has already been playing in bigger cities for months, and if it managed to make it here, it’s probably worth your attention. Enter The Artist, a French film that visually and aurally apes the style of silent 1920s cinema. While The Artist certainly does a fine job of standing out in a multiplex, the story begins to wear thin once the novelty dissipates.
Set just before the invention of “talkies,” The Artist follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film actor on top of the world. When the industry begins to evolve, poor George is pushed out of the spotlight and into the poorhouse. Fresh-faced Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) becomes the big star in the film industry, but thanks to a chance encounter and a long-time crush, she might be the one person who still remembers Valentin.
The appeal of The Artist, and the main reason the film has the buzz that it does, is partially due to its black and white, 4×3 image, but mostly due to it’s lack of audible dialogue. That’s right: The Artist is what most people consider to be a “silent film,” but in reality, this movie does more with sound design than the typical modern film. There are a few scenes in The Artist that play with sound very well, and these moments stand out because of their scarcity.
The performances in the film are universally excellent, especially those given by Dujardin and Bejo. We live in an age where so much of an actor’s job is delivering lines. With the importance of dialogue stripped away, actors are left with body language and facial expressions to tell their story. The fact that both leads in The Artist are able to create full characters without the spoken word makes their performances stand out as particularly brilliant.
But sure to be the most talked-about performance in the film is given by an adorable Jack Russell terrier named Uggie. He completely steals the show in every scene he’s in. It’s almost unfair to Dujardin and Bejo, because Uggie steals all of the attention.
After the first half hour of The Artist, the style has set in, the important characters have been realized, and the audience’s focus turns to the story. While George and Peppy’s tale isn’t poorly told, it is far from the most compelling component of the film. Maybe The Artist would have served better as a short, because after the novelty of the style ceases from being entertaining on its own, there’s a still a lot of movie left. The plot is so predictable and straightforward that the film seems long even at a scant 100 minutes.
The Artist isn’t the love letter to cinema that it pretends to be. Sure, it embraces the past through its style, but it also paints the studio system as unfair and it portrays film audiences as fickle. While both of these sentiments may, in fact, be true (they probably are), they also reveal a bitter attitude lurking beneath. Deep down, the filmmakers behind The Artist have more to say, but who can concentrate when Uggie is so doggone cute!
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