Critical Distance: The Artist

Sometimes it’s hard to separate a movie from the hype.

Critical Distance: The Artist
Photo: The Weinstein Company

Sometimes it’s hard to separate a movie from the hype. Anyone who’s followed the nauseating Oscar prognostication over the last several months knew full well that Harvey Weinstein’s Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist would win the Best Picture crown on Sunday’s telecast of the Academy Awards. Nonetheless, given its preordained victory, the critical dialogue about the film has become predictably antipathetic. As Scott Tobias observed recently, the political machine attached to frontrunners and winners often distorts our vision of them and renders reasonable discourse a challenge. Truth be told, these days the Oscar badge doesn’t hold much weight. The reason for this, Tobias concludes, is that Best Picture winners represent consensus over excellence. Oscar winners reflect more on the film industry’s own image of itself than the artistic significance of film. A.O. Scott articulates this in a recent piece in the New York Times, in which he and Manohla Dargis examine recent winners against the broader significance of the Oscars. Says Scott:

“[The Artist] and The King’s Speech, different though they are, may define what an Oscar movie is today: well made, emotionally accessible and distributed by the Weinstein Company. People who see them mostly like them. But the movies people love—both the idiosyncratic, ambitious movies that spark passions and start arguments and the hugely popular, hugely expensive genre movies that are Hollywood’s global cash crop—have become marginal. Which could be why the Oscars seem so small these days.”

With these reflections in mind, what then can we extrapolate from The Artist’s recent victory? Will it become another King’s Speech—a film with high production value and a protagonist triumphing against all odds? If so, will it suffer a similar fate and fall into relative obscurity almost immediately? Unlike the 2011 Academy Awards, there was no Social Network among this year’s nominees. With the possible exception of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a film that galvanized critics but didn’t take much hold with audiences, there was no film destined to become a classic: a proverbial Do the Right Thing to The Artist’s Driving Miss Daisy. Instead, The Artist blends with its competition in two important ways: First, it’s well made and emotionally accessible, per Scott’s summation of the Oscar movie today; and second, it’s emblematic of an increasingly visible pattern in recent Hollywood lore to be nostalgic for a bygone era. (Matt Zoller Seitz thoughtfully examined this trend in a Salon article back in December, which is well worth reading.)

Determining the larger resonance of a “film of the moment” is always difficult, although perhaps even more so in an age in which the media moment is ever transient. Regarding The Artist, I would argue that this particular moment is worth trying to penetrate, even if it proves to be ephemeral. What sets this film apart from other works pining for the past (as well as other recent winners of Oscar gold) is its central conceit. It’s a pseudo-silent film about, conveniently, the age of silent cinema. Some call this a gimmick, and they might be right. But that’s no reason to dismiss the film completely. On the contrary, this element makes Hazanavicius’s ode to the silent era worth exploring more fully—from its formal detail to its significance in the critical and cultural spheres that overlap around the Oscars.


Let’s first have a look at the movie itself, which announces its own meta-ness right at the outset. The opening sequence sees its protagonist, the silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) both on and behind the screen as his new film plays to the adulation of a packed cinema house in the 1920s. It is an effective visual statement of the film’s outwardly reflexive disposition. Hazanivicius makes this point more clear elsewhere throughout the film, playfully incorporating sound and visual effects at key moments.

The incorporation of cinematic technology that developed after the silent era into a reflexively constructed silent film is perhaps The Artist’s most distinctive quality. However, the shakiness of the relationship between the film’s self-awareness and its reverence for the traditions it emulates results in a notably detached experience of the film. It’s a modest pleasure to watch, but not one that leaves a particularly strong impression. This, I suspect, is the problem some critics have with The Artist. Its overt self-referential mode conceals the reality that it has such little conviction in its own pretenses. In addition, it simply doesn’t say or evoke much at all, at least not intentionally.

But before I say more about these issues, I want to shift the focus to film’s narrative, particularly how it contrasts with the hyper-awareness and stylistic focus of the film. True enough, because were it not for its stylistic boldness, The Artist wouldn’t be as intensely debated or recognized. However, to understand the phenomenon, we must dig beneath its much-discussed surface and examine the story and thematic undercurrents. The narrative is set at the crossroads of silents and talkies. Specifically, the story illustrates how one man’s career was doomed due to the ushering in of sound in movies. This all fits nicely into film’s idealized vision of Hollywood’s golden age and its lament of the inevitable progress of technology. Additionally, it dovetails with the film’s skillful manipulation and presentation of film form. But a closer consideration reveals a more problematic relationship of the story with its own reflexivity.


The center of the narrative is Valentin’s downfall, which at first appears to be attributable to the rise of sound in cinema. I would instead argue that the main culprit in actor’s unraveling is a woman by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Peppy is an enthusiastic fan of Valentin’s whose accidental moment in the spotlight represents the start of her rocketing to stardom. She begins as an extra on one of Valentin’s films, during which time the two share a sweet encounter and what would appear to be the beginnings of love. But as talkies rapidly displace silents, Miller’s career flourishes at a proportional rate to the demise of Valentin’s. This is where the film’s own layers of meta-ness begin to grate with its narrative. While the silent-movie gimmick keeps the proceedings from becoming too somber, the film’s focus on Valentin’s tragedy rather than Peppy’s success is curiously askew. Moreover, it frames her success as the cause for his failure and then proceeds to wallow in his misery. Thus, by destroying the life of a successful man and making him regret he ever met her, Miller’s character mirrors that of the traditional Vamp of the silent age. Motivated by guilt, Peppy risks her own career to save Valentin from a dark fate, reviving his career and returning him to the spotlight to bask in mutual success.

The Artist’s gender problem is best articulated in a blog post comparing the plot of The Artist with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The uncanniness of the similarities makes the comparison all too relevant. Whereas Anchorman satirizes “the good old days” of casual and rampant sexism, The Artist not only reinforces them, but worships them. By the film’s conclusion, Valentin’s transformation at the narrative level appears to mirror the film’s own transformation to espousing a more positive approach toward change. You see, men and women can be successful in the movies! After all, doesn’t social progress always accompany technological advances? From this perspective, what seems like a knowing meta-commentary turns out to be more of that good old-fashioned, feel-good revisionism for which Hollywood has become famous.

I concede that my focus on The Artist’s gender relations can be a limiting vantage point to critique the film’s broader relevance. But it also offers new insight into the various other points that have been introduced in the larger dialogue about the film. Despite layers of mimicry and self-awareness, the relationship between the story of damaged masculinity’s return to prominence and a nostalgia for a deceased era make this film a troubling expression of meta-traditionalism. Thus, if nothing else, The Artist is a fascinating portrait of Hollywood’s precarious vision of itself and its history; namely, its applauding the social progress it claims to enact despite sustaining the same biased racial and gender standards for decades. And the most worrisome aspect about this is how these realities are packaged and presented with a witty sense of irony and romance.


Another telling aspect of The Artist’s skillful stylistic and narrative manipulation is its use of a cue from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score in a key moment in the film. Controversy erupted when Kim Novak chose vivid language in reaction to the cue’s inclusion in the picture. The filmmakers have since noted that the piece is cited in the film’s credits. However, in doing so, they failed to address the question of why a famous selection of music from a 1958 film bearing no relation to the proceedings of The Artist was featured so prominently in the film. In response to the controversy, an Internet meme originating at IndieWire’s Press Play celebrated the diversity of potential uses of Hermann’s famous string-based track. The “Vertigoed” meme is perhaps the most useful criticism of The Artist for its implicit suggestion that the film’s self-referential nature places it on a similar level of YouTube trailer mash-ups, and the like. It offers loads of ironic wit while playfully nudging the contemporary viewer’s keen familiarity of narrative and stylistic conventions of media. But the Vertigo cue suggests that The Artist’s imitations don’t end at an explicit acknowledgement of the audience’s awareness, which is especially concerning in current light of the film’s resonance.

Through all the discord in the critical dialogue about how the film’s stylistic exercises translate to artistic value, I wonder if The Artist’s significance runs deeper than its own illusions. Some critics have noted that The Artist is benign or not meant to be taken too seriously, but these criticisms are too focused on intent and not focused enough on how the film signifies in other ways. For my part, the most important lesson I took from The Artist is an increased awareness for the uselessness of artistic intent. It may be devoid of artistic value, but it’s still worthy of critical attention. In fact, I would argue that The Artist is an interesting, even relevant film, but not for reasons intended by the filmmakers. It’s representative of today’s fractured mediascape, where even in its own domain the rules of production and spectatorship are shifting.

It’s worth noting the alternative viewpoint to The Artist’s Oscar success. This perspective generally holds that the film’s visibility will translate to contemporary audiences’ widest exposure and access to film history. Placed in this context, the broad strokes of The Artist may provide a foundation for less informed viewers to understand that the joys of cinema extend well beyond the parameters dictated by today’s purveyors of commercial desire. This may be true. Yet, for all its historical consciousness and clever meta-commentary, The Artist is much more problematic than its easy-going disposition suggests. Its haphazard gleaning and ultimate distortion of film history (epitomized by the Vertigo cue) illustrates the inherent faultiness of its premise. That it also reinforces many of the troubling realities—particularly regarding gender—that have long entrenched commercial filmmaking only articulates this point more clearly. These signs point ominously to a broader commentary simmering beneath the reflexively nostalgic surface of this listless love letter to cinema: As validation that pastiche is the currency of the digital age, The Artist may indeed be the movie of our time.


This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Ted Pigeon

Ted Pigeon is director of scientific services at MJH Life Science.

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