Friday, December 16, 2011

What I Saw: The Artist

What I Saw:   The Artist

Watch any interview with an actor and they’re certain to start talking about how “the art” or “the work” is more important than the fame or the money. Of course, they’re also likely to define art in a way that just happens to match up with their own talents and paychecks. The Artist explores these parallel self-interests through Jean Dujardin’s character whose matrix of art, fame and wealth is on the decline, and Berenice Bejo’s character who is on the rise.

I must admit that the first ten minutes of the film had me worried. The opening sequences felt like a caricature, and the audience that I was in seemed unusually giddy about each staged laugh line, with some of them acting like they’d never seen a dog before. Luckily, director Michel Hazanavicius’ early introduction of these tropes on a large scale paves the way for their more subtle reincorporation as the story shifts from the public spotlight to the personal struggles of our artist. In hindsight, the flashy opening lovingly pokes fun at our stereotypes of the silent medium, getting them out of the way early so that modern audiences are prepared to engage with the nuance that comes later.

More than an homage to the past, The Artist plays with the themes of presence and absence that define our Western sensibilities. Rationalist dialogue is replaced by the emotive score of Ludovic Bource.  Bejo dances with the trappings of an empty jacket, or partially hidden behind a screen. The most realistic sound mixing comes during surreal nightmares and moments of personal doubt. The film’s cinematography also plays with these perspectives. At one point, I could have sworn that the trees looked green, even though I knew the film was black and white. In other places, the simple act of watching a movie is portrayed differently when shown in a crowded theater or a private living room, and the view from directly ahead is different from being hidden behind the screen or gazing from a side angle in a distant balcony. And at a crucial moment in the plot, Bejo stands in a room with a checkerboard floor and horizontal blinds, while making an important discovery through the prism of a film reel that liberates our characters from the onslaught of linear progress.

Rather than a limitation, the silent black and white structure of the film feeds the imagination and corresponds to the narrative exploration of how presence and absence are often as much about our perspectives as our realities. Dujardin commands the loyalty of the girl, a dog, his butler and the audience, but feels as though he can’t even rely upon his own shadow. A fleeting picture in the newspaper can make fans imagine that they know you, or make your wife upset that you don’t talk to her. A movie mogul (John Goodman) is alternately in control and at the mercy of his stars. The slightest gimmick can make you stand out among the crowd, whether it be a painted on mole or the discovery of tap dancing. And what worked in your favor yesterday may be your undoing today, or lead to your reinvention tomorrow. It’s all about how you choose to define your art.

As I did with Hugo and My Week With Marilyn, this feels like an appropriate space to introduce my readers to some classic film styles that The Artist represents, all courtesy of my fellow bloggers at The LAMB.

Silent Volume has over 150  excellent movie reviews from the silent era, all searchable by name and genre. He even provides information on how to find these films so that you can enjoy them for yourself!

Silent Stanzas features reviews, poetry, photos and stories about silent films.

Film: Ab Initio takes a historical approach to film’s evolution, with a special focus on the early days.

They Had Faces and The Flapper Factor explore the visual beauty of silent era films.

And if you want to know what life is like for a real, modern day silent film accompanist, be sure to check out Silent Film Music.

Oscar Chances:

I’ve been predicting that The Artist will win best picture since September, and the precursors of this past week don’t give me any reason to change now. As of today (12/16/11), my prediction pages currently show the artist receiving 8 nominations, and as I update them in the next few weeks that number could potentially rise to 10 or 11.

Best Picture (Predicted Winner)
Original Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius (Currently my Predicted Winner, although Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris could easily usurp this spot in my next predictions)
Score: Ludovic Bource (currently ranked 2)
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius (currently ranked 3)
Lead Actor: Jean Dujardin (currently ranked 3)
Supporting Actress: Berenice Bejo (currently ranked 7, but will rise into the top 5 with my next predictions. Also cross-listed in the Lead category, rank 34, although at this point why would she rock the boat?)
Film Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion (currently ranked 4)
Cinematography: Guillaume Shiffman (currently ranked 5)
Art Direction: Laurence Bennett (currently ranked 7, likely to move up in my next predictions)
Costume Design: Mark Bridges (currently ranked 5)
Makeup (currently ranked 6 in a field of 3 nominees)
Supporting Actor: John Goodman (currently ranked 43, but will rise in my next predictions)
Sound Editing (currently ranked 34, but will rise in my next predictions)
Sound Mixing (currently ranked 50, but expect a big jump the next time I update these predictions, possibly even into the top 5)

As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!

My Lamb Score: 4 ½ out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.


  1. Why is Bernice being seen as Supporting and not Lead?

  2. @Anonymous, There's a little bit of category fraud there, although not nearly as bad as we've seen in the past for some films. Her part is smaller than Dujardin's (who also has the title role), but you're right that in most romantic comedies there is room for two leads. Harvey Weinstein is obviously working his magic here, knowing that she has a better chance at a nomination if she's campaigned as supporting.

    I do wonder, however, since the Academy gets to place people wherever they choose, if she might miss out because some people decide she's lead instead of supporting. The precursors seem to have fallen pretty well in line, though.

  3. Such a busy time for me right now, but I'm going to try and see this one next week.

  4. [i'm THE Anonuymous, the Israeli guy...]

    nice review, but have you seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yet?

  5. @Bonjour Tristesse, I think you're really going to enjoy this one, and I'll be interested to hear whether you see connections to French cinematic styles, or whether it is sticking mostly to American silent themes.

    @Anonymous, I haven't seen TTSS yet, and I'm really beginning to wonder how much his precursor snubs are going to impact his chance at an Oscar nomination. I'm sure he'll get into the BAFTA's, though, and he did win the San Francisco film critics (my home city). Given some travel that I have to do this month, I may not get around to TTSS until the New Years holiday, partly because my movie partner likes to catch as many of the Golden Globe nominees as possible before their awards, and partly because I want to catch the more independent films with short runs while I can, while I'm pretty sure TTSS will be playing in some of the other cities. We'll have to see whether I like it as much as you did!

  6. Great review and those were some interesting links you provided. I had only seen 5 or so silent films before seeing The Artist. I wonder how it would have effected my viewing if I saw some of the more prominent silent films beforehand.

    As for Oscars, you are right, this film is going to be big. I'm predicting it to win Original Screenplay and Original Score but I can easily see it winning Best Picture and sweeping through the technical categories.

  7. Thanks Ryan! I haven't seen a whole lot of silent films myself, but my sense is that the first parts especially (before he sees the film clip of the lady singing) feel pretty accurate. After that he gets more fancy (which I liked), although they may simply be portraying more dramatic silent films that I haven't seen.