I’ll admit I was a little nervous going into The Artist. A 100 minute, black & white, 4×3, silent film released in 2011…? I mean, I can toss a Buster Keaton DVD in my PS3 and be as happy as the next guy, but how audacious that someone would try and release a silent movie in modern times…! The people who made The Artist have balls. Big black & white balls.
Though, the more I think about it, maybe creating an original silent film in 2011 isn’t that insane of an idea. The film never really tries to trick you into thinking that your actually watching a film made in the 1930s. Different than how 2009’s House of the Devil really tried to trick you into thinking it was actually a 1980s horror film. No The Artist has too many modernisms (hey, that’s not a word!). A middle finger here, a touch of all too clean special effects there, and there’s always the “Hey, there’s John Goodman!” factor. But most of all, the film is so brilliantly self-referential. It’s one of the most meta films I’ve seen in a while.
Starting out with a silent film within a silent film, the whole thing is a wink at itself. The audience applauds. We hear nothing. There are even scenes where the actual scarce audience watching The Artist (the other 6 people in the theater and I) become sort of a layer of meta while watching the scarce audience watching the outdated filmmaking in the in the film that is using outdated filmmaking, The Artist. Huh? In an era of film when everyone is talking about the future of 3D technology, whether it’s here to stay or not, The Artist then uses a completely outdated method of filmmaking to reference the incoming panic of new technology. But at the same time, using the angle of a black & white silent film proved to be a better storytelling device than 3D has ever done. But talkies eventually did take over, does that mean we should accept the promise of radical new technology? Perhaps I’m overthinking this. I’m just saying, The Artist can provide some deep thinking if you want it to.
Throw all that aside, and you’ve got a great story anyway. It’s been done before; the silent film star having to adapt to the ever-growing threat of talkies messing up his career. Again, trying to pass this film off as anything but a reference would be silly. If this same film got released in 1931, it probably wouldn’t be all that significant. It is a modern callback to a golden era, kind of how Singing in the Rain was. I wouldn’t quite call it a film history lesson; even if is a love letter to a historical film period, because it works so well on even the most basic of levels. However, to shoot The Artist in any other way than it actually played out would immediately make it shitty. Making this a back-and-forth between talking and silent would have ruined this film. It needed to be silent the whole time. I’ll admit, the whole thing is a bit of an exercise; but a well thought out, very well executed exercise. I would hesitate to call this film a gimmick (I’m sure anyone really is), because the only way to pull this off is to do it the way that they did it.
The heart of this film is in the right place no matter what you interpret otherwise. If you were to read The Artist on simply the surface level, you’d still get a rewarding experience. The acting is fantastic, the cinematography is great, and the story is simple but masterfully told. The set designs and costumes are pitch perfect. It’s funny, it’s sad, it even gets really fucking dark for a little bit near the end. The protagonist is one of the most likable characters you could ever imagine. The Artist left a smile on my face. If you’ve ever had an interest in silent films, go see this movie. I would graciously recommend this film to anybody. It’s fantastic. But if you are completely turned off by the thought of sitting through a silent movie, then maybe The Artist is just not for you. It’s just a different way of storytelling, but I can see how some (or a lot) of people living in 2011 wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to see this. Why would they, when Alvin and the Chipmunks have released yet another squeakquel? They’re chipwrecked this time!
Even though it’s not The Kid or The General (it doesn’t try to be), I thought The Artist was a splendid little film. One of the best of last year.
9 out of 10