The Artist is a dismissible movie, even though it was just voted Best Picture and Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle—a calamity that proves the sorry state of contemporary film criticism. When film critics mistake pyrite for gold, it is an undeniable catastrophe, one that is ushering in the end of cinephilia.
Look at the similarly idiotic way critics have fallen for Hugo, as if Scorsese spending $150 million to gratify his own filmmaking hubris was equal to his professed interest in promoting film preservation. Hugo preserves hackneyed, self-righteous filmmaking, same as director Michel Hazanavicius in The Artist turns the levity and sentiment of silent movie comedy into tongue-in-cheek facetiousness. Hazanavicius’ Hollywood backlot story of movie star Jean Valentin (Jean Dujardin) facing both the onset of sound and the rise of a new starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) copies Singin’ in the Rain. It’s film buff folly for audiences who don’t recognize the rip-off and lack of wit.
The Artist is not an innocuous paen to silent movies, but a tribute to insipid commercial filmmaking—and that includes trash like Hugo. The Artist (an unworthy title) complements Scorsese’s craven hunger for mass approval. Scorsese, a former poet of the streets, renounces the spiritual and political dedication that Pasolini maintained throughout his career, which is just as well for media folk who would as soon applaud Scorsese for capitulating to the corruption of commercial cinema. Instead of going deep and exploring how human nature and social politics clash, Scorsese in Hugo stays superficial, ignoring what it really is that makes movies worthwhile. That same deception makes The Artist insufferable.
Toothsome Dujardin overdoes and trivializes movie star confidence. He turns “irresistible charm” into strident buffoonery, imitating Gene Kelly’s jocular hoofing and grinning zeal and Douglas Fairbanks’ moustache (which were already parodied by Kelly in Minnelli’s 1947 The Pirate). Dujardin and Hazanavicius banalize the silent movie concentration on faces where lighting and focus revealed the soul beneath the surface. Hazanavicius’ superficial imitation of silent movie style totally misrepresents the trenchancy that helped Charlie Chaplin charm the world. Chaplin believed in emotional sincerity but The Artist, typical of millennial culture, disrespects emotion and settles for being tongue-in-cheek.
Hazanavicius fakes sincerity by being “adorable”—a horrible method for entertainment that offers facetious pleasure. Problem is, Hazanavicius is not a satirist, he panders. Last year, Sylvain Chomet’s cartoon The Illusionist (a meticulous tribute to Jacques Tati) replicated silent style better and more precisely. Hazanavicius adds sound to The Artist for cheap effects yet these gimmicks deliberately—faithlessly—break the movie’s silent spell. It never captures the sensuous depth of great silent film. Aggressively unsubtle, its over-emphatic music score keeps elbowing audiences to be pleased, rather than moved. The film’s deliberate, winking anachronisms are annoyingly inaccurate and insufficient—even Jean and Peppy’s peppy dancing, though energetic, is a third-rate imitation of American movie musical verve. The cross-cultural influence of French and U.S. cinema used to be dynamic and inquiring as the French New Wave once proved from Shoot the Piano Player to Andre Techine’s French Provincial and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs. But The Artist is not about art, or life. It’s too damn “cute.”
One dopey reviewer claimed The Artist “romances its audience into watching in a new way by asking us to watch in an old way”—clear proof the reviewer lacks the slightest understanding of how silent movies worked. A misunderstanding and corruption of film history and aesthetic standards is now afoot in movie culture, clearing the path for the art form’s irrelevance. (That’s also the unintended effect of the stultifying Hugo.) This attitude is typified by the New York Times review that disingenuously endorses The Artist, recommending it for “viewers entirely innocent of film history—even the young, blockbuster-fed movie fans who find themselves dragged to and then transported by this minor marvel.” This isn’t a movie for innocence but ignorance. The Artist and Hugo hold cinema back; both celebrate the movies’ obsolescence.