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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