Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Artist: Following Oscar

Every year I plan to watch all the Oscar Best Picture nominees. I never do. At least this year I'm taking a swing at it. Yesterday we decided to give The Super Bowl the finger and go see the silent film, "The Artist." Anyone who's a fan of classic film will appreciate how this film reminds us that words are sometimes (often at the most important times) completely unnecessary. Modern filmmaking can rely so heavily on slick angles, special effects, and overt explanations to stitch together poor plots, we may forget how much power a simple actor can actually posses. In this way, lead actor Jean Dujardin delivers beautifully in his faithful rendering of a 1920s silent film star, George Valentin, caught in the changing world of talkies. From the moment he comes on screen, Dujardin's every expression is riveting. He charms us as the attention-hogging cad, the stunning leading man who's debonair grin makes lowly chorus girls swoon.

In addition to a playful, engaging beginning, the film dovetails nicely with a winning, highly satisfying conclusion. It's easy to see why this film's getting so much Oscar love. Where "The Artist" is concerned, however, the mess is in the middle.

First of all, I give few points for sets and costume design. Every film needs sets and costumes, and any film worth it's space on a terabyte drive pays attention to every detail. Needless to say, "The Artist" had wonderful costumes, sets, and film style. It's not my goal to be a contrarian, but there was at least one major flaw in this movie, a shadow from which the lead characters never fully emerge. Leading man George Valentin (Dujardin) is married. Not only was their no real point for it, the fact that he was cost both him and his leading lady, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), major likability points. The film attempts to demonstrate Valentin's wife's unworthiness and therefore dismissability through her sullen ingratitude and passive aggressive habit of defacing her husband's photographs. She's a bitter bitch, but the film never tells us why. We are just expected to accept that she's terrible. Instead she becomes an enigma, an unresolved snarl. To be honest, I felt like the writer (Michel Hazanavicius) was using this character to settle a personal score without regard to how such a two-dimensional character hinders his plot.

Further than that, I question the wife's place in the plot entirely. What purpose (other than to keep the two leads from pursuing a romance more quickly) does she serve? Couldn't the writer have found a better obstacle, something that doesn't negatively impact the likability of the leads and cast their romance in an unfavorable light? I could never quite root for their love, knowing the sneaky young female lead knowingly went after a married man and that the older male lead indulged and even encouraged her. Pictures of the wife littered the room during one of the leads' first intimate encounters, rubbing the audience's nose how inappropriate their interaction was. As a result, I never rooted for Peppy's success (either in love or in life). Her motives were always suspect, and at times she even came across crazy and a little sinister.

Other than that (and I know it's a lot), I heartily enjoyed "The Artist." The film was a playful homage to our past. Heck, even the film's contradictions were food for thought, so it was all good for me.

Anyone else feel like there's more to "The Artist" than meets the eye? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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