The Sunday Intertitle: The Shock of the Old
So, we finally got around to THE ARTIST, crowding into Cameo 2 with a bunch of other elderly people — I do think it’s nice when a movie attracts an audience that doesn’t normally venture into the dark. Immediately a commercial for Red Bull got a big laugh, so we knew we were surrounded by people who hadn’t seen a film at the cinema for at least a year.
NOBODY knows how to behave at the cinema — the old have forgotten and the young never knew, and things were complicated for this crowd by virtue of the movie being chiefly wordless. Audiences like to talk, but because they don’t want to be the centre of embarrassing attention, they usually time it to coincide with the speech of the actors. That’s not possible here, where dialogue is limited to one scene, song lyrics to another, and apart from that only a few sound effects occur in a dream sequence. When the music quietened, people really didn’t know what to do…
Ah, the polite laughter of the middle-class! The laughter that says, “I understood that, and I approve of the sentiment.” I don’t mean to be harsh: I value politeness, understanding and approval. I don’t think of them as a form of humour, though. THE ARTIST has some cute jokes, and some clever moments, but felt awfully thin to me.
Michel Hazanavicius may talk about CITY LIGHTS (which is also not a silent film) as an influence, but as David Ehrenstein points out, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a far greater influence than any 20s or 30s film, on the structure, the central performance and the whole perception of the subject. There’s also the ghost of A STAR IS BORN, and a conscious lifting from ANCHORMAN (arrogant successful man falls from grace — he has a dog so we’ll care), and that controversial VERTIGO borrowing (as incomprehensible to me now I’ve seen the film as it was when I heard about it).
I wasn’t moved (and I ought to be an absolute sucker for this story), I only laughed a little, and the much-vaunted “charm” was authentic but only got me so far. Leading man Jean Dujardin is handsome and appealing and funny, and it’s nice to see him and his director stretch themselves beyond the repeating set-up/joke structure of the jolly OSS:117 films, but long passages of up to twenty minutes seemed devoid of any real dramatic or cinematic ideas, a problem when your story is as simplistic and one-track as this. This is a shame since the ideas-rich bits are often very good. When the protag becomes his own writer, producer and director, a multi-exposure montage causes a circular camera part to overlap his face, forming a Von Stroheim monocle. Anyone who can come up with that ought to be able to dish up a few more dog gags. But he does do a good ambiguous BANG! (above) — the intertitular equivalent of THE APARTMENT’s false alarm Act III champagne cork.
The rest of the cast: Uggy is great (if outclassed by Skippy, the terrier who played Asta) and Berenice Bejo does well, despite not really looking like a 20s starlet. There’s not a lot of depth there, but I blame the script, not the actors or the constraints of pantomime. What’s weird is that James Cromwell and John Goodman, two very capable actors with strong physical characteristics, count for almost nothing — Goodman immediately peps up when he gets to speak, and shows signs of his skill in the scene where Bejo blackmails him, which again leads me to think that it’s the lack of business and lack of drama which hinder them. But maybe they’re just not silent actors. Imagining Doug Jones or Pierre Etaix in the Cromwell role immediately unlocks possibilities untapped here.
And thinking of Etaix leads one to YOYO, which did it all first and better –