The Artist: The Best New Old Movie of All Time?

Even my smartest friends are in raptures over The Artist. Since it’s being hailed as possibly the best movie of all time since those newfangled talkies hit the screen, I marched myself to a matinee at the local one-screen community theater up the street. Having racked up Oscar nominations for everything from its actors and directing to Film Editing, Score and Costume Design (nine in all), never mind that the film is mostly silent – I’m surprised they didn’t just throw best Sound Editing in too.

The look of the opening credits put me right on the couch with my beloved Grampa, who enjoys nothing more than a good Deanna Durbin musical of the 1930’s. On Grampa’s movie nights, young ladies and their fathers would do anything for each other. There’s a lot of music and tearful hugging (he also loves old Little House on the Prairie episodes).

Deanna Durbin in One Hundred Men and a Girl.

The unquestioned devotion of a young woman for an older man is a theme of The Artist, too. There’s a pinch of romance, and lots of gazing out car windows while tears drip down in concert with the rain. And a pretty cute dog.

Nice cars are nothing when your friends are unhappy.

Silent movie star George Valentin (the perfectly cast Jean Dujardin) rules the movie biz of the late 1920’s. The      audience of Obama’s November 2008 acceptance speech has nothing on the 1927 audience at the premiere of Valentin’s latest epic. His impeccably trained terrier is the perfect onstage appendage as Valentin soaks in the crowd’s adulation, shamelessly upstaging his co-star (the impish Missi Pyle).  Throngs of female fans love him almost as much as his own wife detests him (how nice that these marital debacles were limited to Hollywood’s earliest era).

A chance encounter in front of the cameras with Valentin vaults young, beautiful autograph seeker Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) from the shrieking female masses to the front pages, and with the media savvy of a Kardashian matriarch, she lands herself a once-in-a-lifetime audition. It’s not long before Peppy and Valentin reunite onset, and, illuminated by the fresh-faced Bejo’s delicious smile, romance sparkles before the day is over.

But as Peppy’s star rises, Valentin meets the advent of talking pictures with fruity guffaws. Deserted by his studio approximately three minutes later, he wagers everything, Shyamalan-style, on writing, directing, producing and starring in a new silent film adventure which flops just in time for the Great Depression.

Valentin trades his palatial home for a grimy apartment and settles into a self-pitying stupor of booze and cigarettes.  The pawnshop shrugs over his snazziest things, and his only human comfort is the melancholic warmth of a faithful chauffeur (James Cromwell), unless you count the laser-like devotion of his little dog (and audiences calling for a canine Oscar nomination probably would). To a bombastic score, Valentin’s bar-slumping, ambling-around-town gloom drags on for what feels like most of the film (curiously, his pencil mustache endures to perfection, however dissolute the rest of him becomes).

The 'stache is impervious to any misfortune.

The florid and fiery crescendo arrives as the artist’s despair leads to the unthinkable, which we’ve been waiting for all along.

But throughout it all, apparently on the strength of a few giddy dances and a sweet dressing-room exchange, Peppy tirelessly attends to Valentin’s welfare, and secures a second chance for him.

With all of the conventions of a sentimental show-biz narrative intact – the pain of being eclipsed in an oh-so-fickle world, slavish devotion (from both the canine and the human female), the tender artist’s risk of self-destruction, the balm of restored notoriety, and a rousing dance number – everyone is in raptures over how fresh and lovely the film is.

A lot of critics loved this film, but here I’ll just point to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s own Stephen Rea, who raves that the film is “vital and new”.

“Strangely, wonderfully,” he continues, “The Artist feels as bold and innovative a moviegoing experience as James Cameron’s bells-and-whistles Avatar did a couple of years ago. Retro becomes nuevo. Quaint becomes cool.”

It must be because writer/director Michel Hazanavicius  has created a black-and-white, almost completely silent film for a twenty-first century audience, with only the most necessary dialogue revealed in old-fashioned placards. John Goodman, afforded almost no subtitles in the role of the classic cigar-puffing agent, may be worth the price of admission just for his soundless expressions of thoroughly disgruntled acquiescence.  The cast shines and the sets are irresistible.

Especially for a relative youngster like me – and, I admit it, hardly a film aficionado – watching a brand-new silent film does elicit an enjoyable kind of verbal suspense and attunement that’s lacking in modern films. “Our screen senses are heightened,” Rea says. “We take in the actors, their motions and emotions, more keenly. The music hits our ears differently, more deeply.” But for me, the throwback novelty of the film’s silent landscape does nothing to heighten the protagonists’ emotional appeal or motivations.

Before we spend at least a third of the film on Valentin’s piteous degradation, we know nothing about him except that he lives for applause and is insufferably conceited, embracing a trained dog more often than his wife. His patrician smolder, however poignant, seems like a poor basis to root for the resurrection of his career, and the reasons for Peppy’s redeeming fidelity to Valentin are unclear, beyond the happy female trope that kept dear little Deanna scheming adorably on behalf of the down-and-out men in her onscreen lives.

Nope. I still don't care.

Of course The Artist’s setting is ripe for references to the modern scramble of the media in the digital age, as the public’s entertainment consumption evolves by the minute. But by now these themes hardly seem any newer than the storytelling conventions of the 1930’s.

Who knows how the art of film will change over the next century? Who knows what we’ll be nostalgic for in another seventy years? Perhaps someone will produce, say, an adventure movie in which a hero with a gritty past must battle aliens hungry for Earth’s resources until someone discovers that infiltrating the mother-ship is the key to it all. The film, full of explosions and fiery, slimy computerized effects, will be shown on a flat screen in 2-D, and the passage of time will render the one-dimensional hero and simplistic plot refreshing and poignant.

The Artist is a beautifully-made, often pleasurable film. But its endearingly old-fashioned quality, from its slew of narrative clichés to its silent-film gimmick, hardly adds up to the best film of year.

What do you think?

If you think I’m a total philistine for shrugging over this New York Film Critics Circle Award Best Picture, by all means, weigh in.

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