The Artist Michel Hazanavicius (France 2011) Jean Dujardin; Benernice Beja
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 10 01 2012 Ticket: £8.00
Soap without the verbals….
Of course Hitchcock knew what a MacGuffin was and made ever more intensive use of the idea to drive his psychosexual obsessions into the heart of the films. The plot to Michel Hazanavicius’ (MH) movie is a Macguffin with an empty centre. When you look for the driving force there’s nothing there. A meaningless plot encircled by vacuous framing devices that signify to the audience that this is a ‘take’ on the silent movie form. We have silence on the dialogue and the effects tracks, (most of the time) but not on the music track. There are intertitle cards for the dialogue, iris fades, other period wipes and vignetting (fuzzy or dark edges at corners of frame) for the picture These outer markers of form enclose a sort of voided centre where the main action consists of a series of old ideas raided from the history of Hollywood, which history has already been heavily quarried by other tomb robbers. The film is premised on the conceit ( accurate) that the fake form of the Artist is sufficient for the films commercial success.
You can fool some of the people all of the time….(Abe Lincoln: attributed)
The acting style in the Artist is not so much of the ‘silent ‘ era, but rather of today. This is not surprising. Contemporary audiences would have little patience with the etiolated expressive gesturing of silent movie acting. They are more comfortable with the exaggerated but cursive expressive gesturing of the TV soap opera: so it’s no surprise that this is what the producers give them. Soap without the verbals.
As regards plot the team behind the Artist decided against a plot line generated by an original idea: they chose to exploit plot as a feeble vehicle for retreading bits and bobs of Hollywood movie history. The decision is of course at one with the rationale behind the movie of playing to audience conceit. We have film as a: ‘spot the references/hommages game’. Film as quiz night. So we have a parade of movie ghosts: Fairbanks Jn, Chaplin (which ref gives Georges Valentin the unconvincing line: ‘I am an artist) Jack Warner, Gloria Swanson, Rin Tin Tin (a major Warner 20’s Star) Lubitsch, and of course Hitchcock.
MH ‘ borrows’ the sound track from Vertigo to try and locate the Artist in the psychotic key that is core to Vertigo’s impact. It’s significant of course that MH has to use the Vertigo sound track to try and point his audience towards the emotional zone he wants to suggest. The decision to recycle the Vertigo soundtrack might have been masterful but the film simply cannot live with it, or rather live it out. The point MH wants to locate in the material seems to be an inverse replication of the fetish sexual fixation that Scotty has with Madeliene. In the Artist we have Pappy and George, and it is the female who is driven to possess the male by her fetish, the magical means of possession through object relations. But the idea doesn’t work in the movie. There is no room for darkness in the relations, and the force of the fetish is only feeble expressed and alluded to in a flimsy sort of way before the mechanics of creaking plot drive the couple on to their last movie reference point: Ginger ‘n Fred.
The role of ‘the dog’ is interesting (real name Uggie – I didn’t notice any credit for his trainer).
The dog is accorded an ambivalent role in the film. He exists for his mechanics and his cuteness but is not allowed to make any other claims. Without these other claims his role becomes that of an automaton, not a personality. By claims I point to the fact that there is not a scene in the film where Georges relates to or engages with the dog. He never feeds it, we never see him talk to it (all pet owners talk to their animals), train it or reward it. George never worries about the animal or cares for it. It is simply an automaton that does as it is bid; aside from the Rin Tin Tin sequence when the dog fetches a cop to rescue his master from the flames. Of course audience love the dog. His performance (enhanced by CGI?) is wondrous, but his role is anomalous. Peppy never relates to him nor does the Chauffeur, and in the last Fred ‘n Ginger sequence he seems to have vanished. Has Peppy murdered the dog as part of her pact with her fetish? The dog in the Artist has a highly circumscribed role: as if the actors, aware of WC Fields dictum, had a contractual clause that limited the role of the mut: no emotional baggage allowed only trix.
The pacing of the Artist is dire. It is relieved by some structured wit as when the film breaks into sound, and the occasional amusing use of a intertitle. The pacing is leaden and accompanied by an original score that is monotonous in both rhythm and tempo. The sequences and scenes grind through the material, without tension or counterpoint. The grim mechanics of the plot, the progress from reference to homage to reference make this a dire filmic experience. It is the triumph of marketing over merit and personal judgement. Sales: it’s the old story: you tell them what they’re going to see; you show it to them….and then tell them they’ve seen it…