The Emperor Has No Sound: Why is The Artist So Overrated?

By Abraham Riesman

Not to sound like a troll or anything, but why isn’t anyone talking about how much of a joke The Artist is?

This overhyped, overly precious, overtly fetishistic “silent” movie throwback (I’ll get to the lies that lurk behind its use of the “s”-word in a moment) is boasting the level of critical and popular praise typically reserved for Bob Dylan reissues and new iPhone models.

It’s rocking a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, more Golden Globe nominations than any other title this year, and a best picture win at the New York Film Critics’ Circle, just to name a few notches on its belt. A dog that does wacky tricks in the movie literally won something called the “Palm Dog” award at Cannes. And it’s only January!

“Here is one of the most entertaining films in many a moon, a film that charms because of its story, its performances and because of the sly way it plays with being silent and black and white,” wrote a breathless Roger Ebert. A.O. Scott gushed that it’s “a generous, touching and slightly daffy expression of unbridled movie love.” Anthony Lane unironically compared it to a 1917 piano suite by Ravel, for God’s sake.

I don’t see the tidal wave of acclaim petering out anytime soon, so before awards season gets into full swing, we need to take a step back and look at the facts.

In case it hasn’t already become clear, The Artist is supposed to be a good, ol’-fashioned silent picture, the kind of thing that they just don’t make anymore. It follows a silent film star and some girl he meets and helps promote. Talkies hit the market, and before you can say “the bee’s knees,” she becomes a star of the sound age, while he refuses to do the whole audio thing because he’s too proud (or something; character motivation isn’t a big factor here). He gets drunk and sad and poor, she’s sort of mean to him, and then she helps him and he’s successful again and everybody’s happy. Meanwhile, the aforementioned dog jumps around and does little dances.

As should be obvious, the plot is flimsier than your usual January-dump rom-com. What’s more, it fails to achieve one of its primary goals, which is re-creating the experience of seeing a silent movie. This thing has not one, not two, but three scenes that prominently feature pre-recorded sound. Doesn’t that undermine the whole idea?

In general, The Artist gets away with a lot of subpar work that would be mocked if the whole thing weren’t being marketed as an arch genre exercise. For example: early on, our female protagonist (the tolerable Bérénice Bejo) is asked by a casting director if she can dance. Her answer? A mediocre rendition of the Charleston. She’s hired on the spot and we’re supposed to be convinced that she’s in Debbie Reynolds territory. I suspect that people wouldn’t buy the scene at all if the act of dancing weren’t so novel in 21st-century film.

Similarly, the title character (hammily portrayed by Jean Dujardin) gives us no reason to understand why he would be a Gene Kelly-esque megastar. We get to see bits of his adventure movies, and he mostly just mugs and does the sort of butch poses that a preteen pretending to be Indiana Jones might pull off. Not coincidentally, Dujardin offers a similar degree of thin over-statement in the character’s moments of off-screen pathos.

In general, Dujardin’s and Bejo’s performances rely on a subtle cynicism: we’re expected to believe that people had much lower standards for actors in the ’20s and ’30s. Unfortunately, we, as a nation, are meeting that expectation.

That’s the key to the movie’s unearned-but-soaring accolades: empty past-fetishism. The film isn’t dreck, and it’s ably made — it’s shot well, its piano score sounds like it could’ve been played in 1927, and all the set decoration seems authentic. But so what? The Artist relies on all the more groan-inducing techniques that pop up in Mad Men, multiplied. The mere fact that the movie exists and looks and feels like something from a different era is the main thing that recommends it.

But look: silent movies weren’t made to accentuate the fact that they were silent movies. They were made to be good movies. One should heed the sage words of Devin Faraci, writer for a poorly-formatted website called “If The Artist truly were from the period it’s about, it would be a minor film that occasionally played on TCM at 3 a.m.” Devin, you’re a breath of fresh air.

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  1. I really liked the movie but agree it might be a little overhyped. It’s completely solid, great to look at if not endlessly deep. Movieline took some issue with ambiguity in the movie (is he being old-fashioned or are we to make anything of the actor being French). I don’t have a problem with that ambiguity myself. That’s a funny criticism to say that if it were from the time period it presents it’d be a minor movie relegated to 3am showings on TCM at 3am. Isn’t that a fate enjoyed by some very good movies of that time and things that were hits in their day? The Haunting (1963) is playing at 3:30AM this morning and that’s an awesome movie!

    The Artist had great sound design I thought. Enjoyed the moments where you’re asked to think for a second about sound and hearing. The one thing that bothered me was the use of the Vertigo score. Hazanavicius fell in love with that track in rehearsal but should have replaced it for the finished movie. I rolled with it when I saw The Artist, but it really was distracting! Kim Novak came out of retirement to loudly protest its use. And while I’m wondering ‘Kim Novak is still alive ?!’, Hazanavicius is defending this choice. Idiot. I’d be replacing that bit of soundtrack already.

  2. Seems you’re channeling your inner Armond White. I would chalk my appreciation of this movie more upto its intangibles… that unquantifiable attribute called “charm”. I haven’t seen a non-animated/muppet movie that kept such a persistent smile on my face since maybe “Amelie”. Looking at the past best picture noms, I’d maybe throw “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” out there, but they had cynical streaks in them. Sure, the movie had mugging and thin characters, but I’ve seen plenty of silent movies to say that this was on par with anything you’d see in a standard Harold Lloyd movie. Sure it didn’t have the physical comedy or brilliant inventiveness of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, but the characterizations were about on par, especially female characters. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite movie ever, or something that I would rave about to people (aside from people who I think would have an affinity towards it), but it’s been a weak year for movies. Name me 7 better best picture candidates. And it’s a movie designed to win a Golden Globe… Foreign-made, about movie history, etc. As far as your concern about their movie star status being believeable, I got the sense that he was more of a third tier movie star. Nobody outside of the movie theatre seemed to recognize him at all. And anyone who can wink like peppy deserves to be a silent film star, no matter the terrible charleston. And she’s obviously a much better dancer than that, so it has to be purposefully done. What that purpose is, I’m not quite sure.

    What was the third instance of sound? I liked the dream sequence, thought the end was a little much, but what was the third?

    1. The use of “Pennies from Heaven.” Your points are well-taken, except for that nonsense about it being a weak year for movies. I’ll see your seven and raise you ten better best picture candidates, right here:

      1) Margaret
      2) Melancholia
      3) Meek’s Crossing
      4) The Descendants
      5) Drive
      6) Young Adult
      7) Bridesmaids
      8) Contagion
      9) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
      10) The Trip

      And that’s not counting some that I haven’t seen, but probably belong in the list (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Hugo, and so on).

      But I legitimately thank you for the Armond White comparison. He is, after all, the dark prince of trolldom!

      1. Along with that, I would like to add…
        Take Shelter
        A Separation
        The Help
        It was an amazing year in film after taking a few years to sit back and observe. And honestly thinking that a flick with a few moments of “charm” could beat such fantastic films is almost appalling!

  3. Dujardin totally sold it I thought. Strong physical comedian. He can dance, he looks like a silent film star, he’s sexy. I bought it.

    Contagion was not good.. really wooden. Total missed opportunity.

    Drive is good but a little heavy on style. A poser version of Michael Mann’s Thief.

  4. Enjoyed reading, even though I disagree. If you see Hugo, I think Scorsese used the throwback to old movies in an ‘overly-precious’ manner as well, but it won’t be seen that way because it is marketed as a children’s film, and therefore isn’t held as accountable as The Artist for ‘trying too hard.’ There are a handful of films whose success in award season is based simply on the merit that they are very enjoyable, charming movies that did something a little different (Chicago comes to mind). Not saying it should be that way, but I think there is a place in the top 10 list for it. Young Adult was one of the foulest things I’ve seen in theaters this year; nothing about the plot or it characters rang true to me whatsoever. But by golly it’s America, so opinions, shmopinions!

  5. Thank god I’m not alone. I just saw The Artist and was baffled by the critical acclaim. It’s a pleasant piece of fluff, but barely worth the effort of watching. It seems to suggest that without sound it’s only possible to tell a story that wouldn’t even challenge a 4-year-old – hardly a homage to the silent era. The 2 leads are charming and seem talented, but however charming they are, I didn’t need 2 hours of them grinning at me. I was reminded of Shakespeare in Love: “Is there a funny bit with a dog?” (I paraphrase); yes, there is a funny bit with a dog. And that’s about it.

  6. Most of my friends are with me and you on this. A sweet, pleasant piece of fluff for sure, but best film of the year?? The Artist is clearly a novelty; I mean there really is nothing else out there like it, and there hasn’t been for years. So I can understand why it feels like a breath of fresh air to everyone (albeit just a slight puff of air).

    And as pastiche, it’s brilliant. Hazanavicius nailed it. If it wasn’t for the brief moments of sound and its pristine photography, I’d probably think I was watching a film from the 1920s if I didn’t know anything about it.

    But let’s be honest: if this film was shot in color, set in 2012 and starred famous movie stars, we’d be dismissing the plot as old-fashioned, trite, clichéd and predictable. We forgive The Artist for being all this, precisely because it’s a piece of nostalgia, and we expect it to come armed with all these tropes.

    But compare it to the great silent films of times past – Battleship Potemkin, The Wind, Intolerance, Nosferatu, The Kid, Modern Times, Safety Last, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, The General – and The Artist truly feels insignificant. I’m betting that many people who love The Artist have seen very few silent films and so have nothing similar to compare it to. In 100 years’ time when cinema is twice the age it is now, if The Artist is compared to the great silent films, it will be completely dismissed and forgotten.

    1. Quite right. And there’s something key to remember about the films of Eisenstein, Murnau, and Lang — they were anything but prosaic! Why does this film eulogize a brand of film that was completely anodyne? Why are the everyday toss-offs of the silent era what we’re supposed to commemorate?

      Thank goodness we have Guy Maddin out there, constantly trying to mine that well of delightfully skin-crawling silence.

  7. Thank you! I thought I was the only one mystified by the accolades showered on this film. I’ve seen this film before and it was called “Singing in the Rain” and it was 1000 times better, funnier, more entertaining and compelling than “The Artist.” How quickly people forget what a true masterpiece is!

  8. Thank you. I equate this film to French rock and roll. Complete crap because they don’t get it.