When one speaks of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, Michel Hazanavicius’s amusing low-brow spy comedy from 2006, rather than of The Artist, his amusing but ostensibly highbrow awards-magnet from 2011, it’s with neither much reverence nor disdain. The former is merely a spy-movie parody, a mediocre genre picture with low aspirations and no delusions of grandeur. Because nobody expects much of anything from it, it’s easy enough to like it for what it is (a modest comic trifle) without getting worked up over what it isn’t (a great film). This seems reasonable enough. But it’s not the fate which fell upon The Artist, an agreeably slight film suddenly overwhelmed by expectations and preconceptions; one now either speaks of it in hushed tones, awed by its Oscar-baiting reverie, or with cool condescension, hip to its flagrant faults. It has, in the year and change since its debut at Cannes, become nearly impossible to think of or talk about The Artist as just another comedy, a slender success no more or less significant than Cairo, Nest of Spies. One now must come equipped with not an opinion, but a position on the matter, prepared to mount either an acerbic takedown or an impassioned defense of a film you’d think wouldn’t need one.
The Artist is positively harmless. Perhaps just enough time has passed since the whirlwind of awards season (and the requisite heckling it inspires) that we may now watch the film with a degree of the clean-slate innocence its charming naïvete requires, which means that we may be free to enjoy the film as the lighthearted comedy it was always intended to be. Because we ought to remember that, for all its wistfully nostalgic posturing, The Artist isn’t a particularly serious work; approaching it with utter seriousness yourself, therefore, all but guarantees disappointment. As the film’s detractors have so often declared, its silent-film framework is nothing more—and I’d add, nothing less—than a simple gimmick. But of course it is, as that’s the sort of thing novelty acts do, and all things considered, The Artist does it pretty well.
Hazanavicius may not be the trailblazing artistic genius the Weinsteins have sold him to us as, but he’s a gifted parodist, and here he uses his gifts for comic mimicry to effective and charming ends. If it seems perfectly acceptable that a Bond parody like Cairo, Nest of Spies would adopt the gimmick of looking and sounding like a rote action picture, why is it cheap or superficial for The Artist to do essentially the same thing to the silent cinema? In both cases, a style and tradition is fondly and gently mocked, and it’s no great travesty if the details aren’t entirely authentic. Much was made of The Artist lifting one of the most memorable passages of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and dropping it indelicately over its own climax, and the indignant condemnations which followed ran the gamut from alarmed claims of sacrilege (“It’s too iconic!”) to sneering over a perceived anachronism (”Vertigo wasn’t even silent, stupid!”).
There are arguments to be made in favor of the citation (the most compelling frames it as a pro-sound-film counterpoint to George Valentin’s anxiety over the loss of silent-film sanctity), but the argument is hardly worth getting into in the first place. The Artist needn’t adhere to its own aesthetic tenets with any rigor whatsoever; it’s too light, fleet, and unserious to have to bother. Far more important to the success of the film are its narrower pleasures: the way Jean Dujardin strains to strike his serious spy face on the set of A German Affair; Peppy Miller’s rise to stardom shown as a story of better billing; and literally everything Uggy the dog does. These joys are cream puffs; you can’t assail them with claims of artistic righteousness. In such moments—and they’re plentiful—it doesn’t matter whether The Artist is a Best Picture winner or a worldwide fan favorite or the return of the silent cinema (the haters seethe at the thought of that one) or even whether it’s a truly great film. What matters is that, however slight its manner or impermanent its legacy, The Artist is an immensely charming and thoroughly entertaining diversion. We ought to be okay with that.
For better or worse, The Artist looks and sounds cleaner and newer than any real silent film ever will in 2012, which makes Sony’s impeccable HD transfer technically good but vaguely incorrect; one almost expects the image to show the requisite deterioration of a film nearly a century old, which is perhaps why Guy Maddin’s deliberately faded-and-tattered approach to silent filmmaking appears, at first glance, to be truer to the form. But I suppose that’s simply a fault of perception and the weathering effects of time; Sony did indeed do right by The Artist by presenting it in pristine condition. Though the blacks and whites tend to look soft (compared to, say, Citizen Kane’s sumptuous HD rendering), they are true to the original look of the film, and of course fidelity must come first. Detail is excellent throughout (check the faces in the crowd during the opening theatrical presentation) and there’s a degree of clarity and balance to the picture that suggests a great degree of care was put into this transfer.
Insofar as sound is used principally as a punchline, the Sony transfer does a bang-up job preparing us for the film’s few diegetic kicks, and the robust score, obviously the only sound heard throughout most of the movie’s running time, comes through with depth and clarity.
If you had any doubts about the film’s key demographic, Sony’s buffet of vapid featurettes should make it clear as crystal: The Artist is being sold to wide-eyed newbies, not hardcore cineastes. Prepare an exaggerated silent groan when, in "The Artist: The Making of an American Romance," a beaming James Cromwell explains without a trace of irony that the film is a love letter to the movies (yeah, thanks for clearing that one up). A little later, Cromwell opines that Hollywood itself "is a character in the film," which then becomes the thesis of a further featurette called, naturally, "Hollywood as Character." Sony has assembled a crack team of armchair historians and restaurant managers to explain why, to use but one shockingly idiotic example, the Bradbury Building has "never been used better" than it was in The Artist, which is a bit like saying that Bernard Herrmann’s "Scene D’Amour" is used better here than it was in Vertigo. The effort may be appreciated, but Thom Andersen these guys are not.
That said, the disc’s bloopers reel is more amusing than any blooper reel since...well, ever, maybe, if only because blooper reels are notoriously unfunny. True to form, Jean Dejardin is just as goofy mucking up the mugging than he is when he nails it, and Uggy provides a few outright belly laughs when he refuses to do as he’s told. Whatever its faults, few can deny that The Artist has more charm in its outtakes than most films have in their final cut.
Haters gonna hate, but as Sony’s excellent Blu-ray proves, The Artist keeps on charming through the backlash.