Why it should be 'The Artist'

Posted by · 12:59 pm · February 25th, 2012

Okay, I’ll level with you. One fairly major reason I want “The Artist” to win Best Picture at tomorrow’s Academy Awards ceremony has nothing whatsoever to do with its lithe charms as a Hollywood fable, its glistening appropriation of a long-dormant screen style, the quicksilver star turn of its leading man or even its eminently adoptable Jack Russell.

It has nothing to do with the film being a silent-cinema gateway for less informed audiences, an all-too-rare foreign crossover, or a witty marker of the distance the medium has traveled in 80-odd years.

It has nothing to do with my relative feelings about its rival nominees, or with the disproportionate critical backlash its success has inspired. Not that these aren’t all factors worthy of consideration, but this reason has nothing to do with the movie at all.

It’s because I have money on it.

Back in September, when the notion of a black-and-white French silent film winning the industry’s most high-profile honor was still deemed sufficiently outlandish by the bookies to merit 20-1 odds, I placed a modest amount on that very outcome — having been convinced since Cannes that it was going to be a heavyweight contender. If it wins, well, we Brits are too proud to talk about money — but suffice to say that two bothersome March expenses, my annual water bill and a new pair of glasses, will be covered. Thanks, Mr. Weinstein, I owe you one.

As it happens, a lot of critics and bloggers covering this year’s awards race might say that new glasses are the very least I require if I’m hypothetically voting for “The Artist” — if you believe some of the more aggressive screeds that have been written against the film in the past few weeks, its fans could use a brain and a soul to go with their freshly unclouded eyes. Criticisms leveled against the film by detractors range in acerbity from the mildly unamused (“thin” is an adjective we’ve heard a lot lately) to the more contentiously damning (it’s artistically regressive, some claim) to the worrying xenophobic (“French” is a description of origin, not a value judgment, guys).

Rarely does an Oscar frontrunner ever cruise to the podium undogged by dissent of some sort, though the novelty factors at play in “The Artist” have made it an easier target of derision than most. Piqued by the belittling tone of many critics’ dismissals of the film — it takes a smart, sensitive writer to charge a film with triviality without making similar implications about its admirers — many pro-“Artist” parties haven’t responded with much more nuance, defensively slapping down the slap-downs with their own accusations of joylessness, while limiting their defenses of the film to vague, snuggly reminders of its puppyish appeal that don’t themselves serve Michel Hazanavicius’s vision very well. By the time such arguments invariably end with Martin Scorsese and “Hugo” getting dragged in as alternative mascots for rear view cinephilia, the film itself has rather been left behind.  

What, then — away from the Oscar race, away from the backlash, away from the external, perception-altering baggage that comes with being a Weinstein property, away from the educational burden that proponents and skeptics alike have placed upon the film — is so great about “The Artist?”

Returning to the review I wrote of the film at Cannes last May, I was surprised to find how completely I agreed with it even at second and third blush: virtues and shortcomings I thought only became more apparent on repeat viewings over six months later had clearly registered at the time, and the film hasn’t grown or shrunk for it.

It is not a film, it should be said, of elusive or opalescent subtext, nor is that a bad thing: the clean lines, open thematics and unmasked sentiment of “The Artist”‘s narrative hearken more tellingly back to classical modes of Hollywood storytelling than the attractive period curlicues of its formal styling. Its simple convex-function story of the fall and rise of George Valentin, an outmoded movie star at the cusp of Hollywood’s uncertain new sound era, forced to learn new tricks from a younger ingenue who has benefited from getting in at the revolution’s ground floor, is, as innumerable observers have noted, a somewhat distorted, water-stained Xerox of “Singin’ in the Rain” and the endlessly remade “A Star is Born.”

Hazanavicius is not pretending otherwise. “The Artist” is a film that operates on the assumption that these narratives have long since entered the public domain, and are ripe for gentle revision if not outright reappraisal — in this case, not by setting them in a new context but by counting on the viewer’s own 21st-century context to assert an adjusted perspective. It’s what we recognize about Valentin’s crisis — the amorphous replaceability of creative beings, the infidelity of audiences, the simultaneous allure and resistibility of social and technological progress — that makes the film slyly a work of its time, though it operates perfectly elegantly as swoonsome pastiche too.  

“The Artist” is a film too excited about the future — both that of its characters and that of its medium — to qualify strictly as a nostalgic exercise. Valentin’s career isn’t destroyed by the arrival or sound, but altered and potentially elevated; as much as Hazanavicius treasures the silvery surfaces, unfashionable romanticism and structural economy of a vast, now underseen bracket of vintage American moviemaking, his film is less a “they don’t make ’em like they used to” elegy than a paean to adaptability and endurance. “We’re still making ’em,” the film joyously says. “We can make anything we want to.”

The film’s playful silent-movie anachronisms — many of them aural, from its cute sound-invasion tricks to its movie-musical gestures to its Bernard Herrmann-interpolating score — may have aggravated certain purists who are missing the point that the film isn’t a precise, postmodern sermon to a single cinematic form, but a celebration of everything that is yet to come in its world.

Though its more specific quirks and references have obviously led its publicity, what Hazanavicius has fashioned here is not a valentine to silent cinema, but a valentine to cinema itself. It’s little wonder that industry peers have latched onto it at a time when head-spinningly rapid developments in 3D and performance capture have them feeling as artistically insecure as George Valentin: not, as detractors suggest, because it buries its head in the sand of reassuring retro sparkle, but because it’s a film with warm, open-armed faith in the future. Most favorable critics have tied the virtues of “The Artist” to its wit and fleetness, and it’s certainly those airier qualities that draw us in, but its kind-hearted trust in art and artists alike to stay the course moved me more profoundly than anything else in the Best Picture lineup. 

As I write this, however, I realize that it might sound over-emphatic in ascribing weight and consequence to a film loved by many simply as an entertainment — as if there’s anything at all simple about entertaining audiences as “The Artist” so coolly and spryly does. Is it redundant at this point to praise the film just for being a delight? It shouldn’t be: there’s as much grace and intelligence in the lickety-split timing of its comedy, the sweetly sincere romantic rapport between Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo and the modest splendor of its visual design as there is in its baitier textual suggestions. It’s a long time since the Academy rallied around something that is this much honest-to-God fun: comedy, even of the smile-rather-than-laugh school, is a regrettably underserved genre in Oscar history, and many observers’ kneejerk equation of lightness with disposability gives us some idea why.

Celebrating the film for what it isn’t, particularly within the Academy’s hall of fame, isn’t the most productive line of advocacy, but it’s hard for me not to be tickled by what an odd duck “The Artist” is in the race, and will surely remain in the list of Best Picture winners — however irrationally cynics suggest that the very patronage of Harvey Weinstein makes it an easy awards grab. It’s not really the film’s achievement, but yes, there’s something cheekily, romantically subversive about a mostly silent, black-and-white comedy — a curio, yes, but a proud and perceptive one — winning the Academy’s top honor at a time when commercial filmmaking is still as firmly in a biggerbetterfastermore state of mind as it was in 1929.

And even if it’s the film’s American setting and cultural history that hits most voters where they live, there’s something excitingly progressive about a French production landing the prize when global financing is making notions of national cinema ever more permeable and heterogeneous: it’s about bloody time a film that doesn’t identify chiefly as American or British won Best Picture, and even if “The Artist”‘s subtitles are still comfortingly English, it’s at least a compromised step in the right direction.

It’s not often the Academy lands upon a frontrunner that allows them to honor traditional Hollywood storytelling, ballsy art house individualism and a touch of world-cinema exoticism in one fell swoop: projecting how the film might age is a fool’s errand, but when the backlash grudgingly subsides, I’d wager that a number of usually opposed Oscar-watching factions will remain quite happy with this one. For now, however, I have another bet on my mind. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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