I just saw The Artist for the first time. I haven’t avoided it; tonight was simply the first chance I got to see it. A number of people have recommended it to me. And let me be blunt: it is my kind of film. People like me love films about film. And The Artist is charming as hell. If for no other reason, the film should be viewed just to see the dog.
Looking through what people have said about the film, it looks like they may have taken it all too seriously. That’s especially true of the few who didn’t like it. To put it simply: it is a 1920s silent film about a 1920s silent film star’s career. And as such, the film relishes the same cliches that it parodies in films inside the film. And it is melodrama from beginning to end. Yet it is incredibly compelling.
It has me thinking how little reality we ever see in any film. But modern films work very hard to hide that fact and I guess as the audience, we play along. Still, that means that the storytelling gets clogged up with a lot of nonsense. What I felt more than anything in The Artist was how fast the story moved along. The film is the same length as both The Expendables II and A Good Day to Die Hard. Yet The Artist seemed half as long.
Part of this is undoubtedly just that The Artist is a well crafted script. Too much of these action film scripts are padded to death with explosions and so on designed to distract. The Artist is filled with wonderful comic bits, which at least tell us more about the people and the totally unreal world they live in. But it is more than just screenwriting craft. The story works because it doesn’t try to be anything but a story. Normally, I would think that would create something of limited interest, but apparently not.
It’s also nice that the film is devoid of any subplots. To me, subplots are what writers come up with when they can’t make the main story interesting (Or long!) enough. As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned the female lead Peppy Miller because she isn’t really all that important to the film except that she and Valentin clearly have a thing for each other and she is the counter example to his decline. There is one great scene with them in the middle of the film where he overhears her talking to reporters saying, “Out with the old, in with the new. Make way for the young!” It’s right out of All About Eve, but especially terrible because we know Valentin can hear her. So he goes up to her table and says, “I’ve made way for you.” And he walks out.
Another aspect of the film is its almost complete absence of exposition. When Valentin was arguing with Zimmer about continuing it make silent films, I thought The Artist screwed up. It didn’t need all that explaining. In fact, I thought the film could have used half as many title cards. Still, it had one-tenth the exposition of most modern films. Well crafted films don’t have to do much telling. A great example in the film was when we first meet Valentin’s wife and all we see of her is the newspaper with the headline “Who’s That Girl?” It made me think of this great “Breakfast Montage” scene from Citizen Kane. The last cut with her reading Kane’s competitor’s paper needs no words:
One more film I was reminded of was Umberto D when Valentin tries to kill himself. Sometimes the only thing between us and eternity is a little dog who teaches us the meaning of life. And that’s a very interesting contrast because Umberto D is a serious film with serious things to say. The Artist is a silly film with nothing particular to say. Yet they both do say a great deal.
Technically, the film was wonderful as well. The music is especially important. The emotional content of almost all the scenes could have been completely changed with different music. It was wonderful.