Even if you correct for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s over-50, white, middlebrow demographic and Harvey Weinstein’s uncanny gift for producing and/or acquiring and promoting Oscar bait (it’s as if he has internalized voters’ tastes — maybe similar to his parents’), The Artist’s lock on Best Picture and Best Director and near-lock on Best Actor, Best Original Score, and a host of other awards is a goddamned wonder of the world. The movie is … fine. Charmant. Occasionally, très charmant. But also très long for what it is, with way too much time spent on the hero’s passive slide into alcoholism and penury. What on Earth makes it a lock?
Let’s give The Artist its due. Following years in which the most rewarded pictures have been word-focused (think of Aaron Sorkin’s motormouths or even the monarch’s world-stopping stammer in The King’s Speech), there’s something elating about a movie in which every lustrous image reads. At The Artist, the part of our brain that tires of listening hard and synthesizing harder gets a welcome break. And it’s not as if our eyes have to do double the work. If you’ll pardon the mixed-metaphor, the eyes are spoonfed. They don’t even need to process color.
But despite the movie’s simplicity (some might say simplemindedness) we can still congratulate ourselves for going to see a black and white silent movie made by a French guy whose name no one can pronounce. Consulting Moviefone last week for The Artist’s show times, I was amused by one of the related reader tweets on the side: “#TheArtist is a silent film and is the best film of the year? I'm going to release a movie starring a rainbow and watch their heads explode.” If I read this right, the tweeter is telling the world that a film without dialogue is akin to … no, it’s too retarded. (Yes, I said it: retarded.) But on some level the viewpoint resonates. Consider the category of Best Foreign Language Film, often awarded to the movie that seems, thanks to its milieu, overwhelmingly, impossibly strange (“Where am I? Why am I here? I can’t follow anything!”) before settling into a recognizable Hollywood formula. (“Oh, they’re going to help each other even though they’re of different races.” “Oh, the man will turn nice and help the little boy.” “Oh, the old bigot will save the Jews!” etc.) The Artist begins in similarly alien territory but quickly pulls you in with exaggerated facial expressions, a Jack Russell terrier doing tricks, and the heroine’s finely-turned legs. (“Hey, this isn’t so hard to watch!”) And if you’re still put off by having to read the subtitles, the music at every turn tells you what you’re supposed to think and feel. This might actually be the loudest silent movie ever made.
It also looks a lot more like a silky black-and-white Deco musical such as Top Hat or a witty simulacrum like Singin’ in the Rain than any silent picture I recall — despite heavy-handed homages to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Rudolph Valentino. The opening is straight out of James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein and the Flash Gordon serials, complete with quotations from Franz Waxman’s scores. The film’s most moving section simply swipes Bernard Hermann’s immortal score to Vertigo, one of the greatest ever composed, the director attempting to equate forgotten silent-film star George Valentin’s grief at the loss of his celebrity with Scottie Ferguson’s impossible and tragic yearning to bring back his dead love. Using the Vertigo theme to simulate sorrow and then slapping on a jolly, tap-dancing finale is like giving Adam Sandler the final speech from King Lear (“Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!”) and having his supposedly dead love awake with a resounding fart.
The plot of The Artist is comfortably modern, too. The subject is celebrity. A middle-aged man whose time, we’re told, has passed, loses it while a cute young tootsie attains it. Never underestimate the resonance of self-pity in Hollywood, especially self-pity with regard to aging and the relentless onrush (wave upon wave) of the young. Forgotten by the fickle public, George Valentin is nonetheless adored by his valet/chauffeur, who works for him without pay, his dog (who is basically a smaller, cuter version of his valet/chauffeur), and the woman who can’t quit him. It’s a lovely narcissistic fantasy — trying to drink yourself to death in response to being ignored but getting saved by those for whom you’re still the center of the world. There isn’t an actor in Hollywood who can’t relate.
The Artist is a skillful pastiche, liberally sprinkled with tropes from our collective unconscious. (By “our” I mean moviegoers of a certain age and Oscar voters.) Jean Dujardin will win for the rakish curl of one eyebrow; the stylized, self-infatuated saunter; the unthreatening handsomeness. He strikes delightful poses. But do you come away thinking you know him, that you’ve seen into his soul? Non. Berenice Bejo won’t defeat Octavia Spencer (neither will Janet McTeer, alas), but she helps sell the movie with her blithe peppiness (her character’s name is Peppy). She dances with more enthusiasm than grace but that adds to her likeability, just as her huge teeth make her seem fresh, forward, irrepressibly eager and not just another demure pretty face.
The Artist will finally be dubbed the best movie of 2012 because no one really loathes it (Armond always excepted) and no one can agree on anything else. Dewy-eyed cine-sentimentalists (cinementalists?) will spring for The Artist over Hugo. The Tree of Life’s name will be greeted with slightly more snickers than cheers. My favorite of the nine nominees, War Horse, has about as much chance as a stallion tangled in barbed wire in a corpse-strewn No Man’s Land between warring Brits and Germans. I also like The Descendants, which seems poised to win an Oscar for its screenplay and that’s it, despite George Clooney’s triumph over his own miscasting. (When Hollywood’s most handsome, glib, and schmoozy politician almost convinces you he’s a misanthropic, workaholic dweeb with no connection to his family or the island on which he was born and raised, it’s no small feat.)
You can expect the winners to carry on about how daringly uncommercial The Artist is (a French silent movie in black-and-white!) and the bravery of Harvey for picking it up. OK, fine, they’re entitled. But starting Monday, Harvey, let’s see what you can do to get the Kenyan-born Socialist Muslim-in-Chief re-elected.