Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The deceptive simplicity of The Artist

with 2 comments

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, the loving homage to silent film that has unexpectedly become the movie to beat at the Oscars. It isn’t hard to see why: this is one of those cinematic stunts, like Memento, that has to be done exceptionally well in order to be done at all, and from its opening scene, with the hero of a silent melodrama insisting to his captors that he’ll never talk, you know that this is a movie blessed with an abundance of ideas. Nearly every scene contains some kind of inspired visual or structural gag, from loving recreations of classic silent comedy routines to nods to Citizen Kane and Singin’ In the Rain, as well as the predictably clever, but still amusing, use of surprise sound effects. It’s so blissfully inventive, in fact, that while I was watching it, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, at least for a movie not made by Pixar: I settled in happily to see what it would do next.

It’s a little surprising, then, to realize that while the movie lavishes so much care on its individual scenes, the overall story is cheerfully formulaic. With a few small exceptions, the story unfolds precisely as we expect, tracing the rise of one star and the fall of another with a literalness that makes A Star is Born seem like the height of sophistication. Unlike the silent films to which it pays tribute, which often had a loose, anarchic sense of story, The Artist follows the Syd Field structure to the point where it’s almost anachronistic. With its neat division into three acts, complete with false crisis, real crisis, and all the other obligatory beats, this is a film that will be studied in screenwriting courses until the end of time, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The execution is seamless, and not without its pleasures, but it still left me wishing for more in the way of real suspense or surprise.

Later, however, I began to wonder if this apparent simplicity is more complex than it seems. For one thing, it was probably impossible for a film like The Artist, which asks so much of a modern audience, to tell anything but the simplest, most classic story. As I’ve said before, when a movie pushes complexity in one direction, it often has to give way in another, which is why the characters in a film like Inception, for instance, can seem so schematic: push complexity in every direction, and you risk of losing the audience entirely. In some respects, then, the classic structure of the plot of The Artist is as much of a stunt as its obvious technical feats. The movie is a clockwork device that has been cut away to show us its inner workings: even as its story plays on our emotions, it invites us to see how it does it. In that respect, it does what the third act of Adaptation tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to do, which is to comment on the nature of formula while working as a story as well.

Or perhaps I’m giving Hazanavicius too much credit. There’s one revealing moment, in fact, where The Artist is too clever for its own good, which is in its use of five minutes of the Bernard Herrmann score from Vertigo. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as Kim Novak apparently does, I agree with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter: “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.” It isn’t quite a fatal misstep, but it’s a questionable one, especially when The Artist doesn’t engage the music in any interesting way: as an homage, it’s on the level of one of those novelty reels, with the music from Psycho spliced over a romantic interlude, that the Oscars uses every few years to demonstrate the power of music. Although Hazanavicius quickly recovers, with an inspired title card gag, it makes us wonder for a moment if he’s as smart as he seems. Which is too bad, because the rest of The Artist is the work of a director who is manifestly as smart as they come.

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie!

    Java Girl

    January 30, 2012 at 5:51 pm

  2. You should! I’ve gone back and forth on it a few times, but the upshot is that I really, really liked it.


    January 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm

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