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Does 'The Artist' Actually Suck?

We look back on the French silent film that won 2011's Best Picture Oscar and see if it still holds up.
Warner Bros.

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

Remember the days when cinema would cast its spell in silence? When the fusion of fantasy and aspiration would sustain our imagination and allow us to surrender completely to the wordless magic on the screen? No? Me neither.

The Artist feels like both Hollywood schlock and a weird sort of video art. It's so saccharine that its sincerity dates it more than the fact that it's a silent film. The Artist tells the story of Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, arguably one of the industry's biggest transitionary periods as it moved out of the silent era and into "talkies." It pushed the culture forward, and it pushed an entire generation of performers to the sidelines.


In The Artist, a silent film actor falls for an up-and-coming young actress whose ascension coincides with his growing antiquity. The plot cements The Artist as a postmodern Hollywood collage, but it also places it in direct conversation with classics like Singin' in the Rain, which also used the evolution of sound in cinema to tell a story about both people and Hollywood itself. That's just one of its many references; others include Sunset Boulevard and Citizen Kane. It even sampled the score to Vertigo, an act Kim Novak compared to rape, proving The Artist's theory that all actors are inherently extra.

The word most used to describe The Artist was "charming," and it's hard to disagree. The Artist is certainly charming in a "Rodgers and Hammerstein meets the Westminster Dog Show" way. At its best, the movie achieves an overall feeling of ease—one that Hollywood often struggles to make seem natural. There are moments of genuine sublimity, such as when Jean Dujardin's George Valentin is giving a performance that attempts to be Astaire adjacent. His footwork recalls an older generation of performers, but his look—that jaw, the smile, the grease mallet hair—sits him squarely in the mid-century of American exceptionalism. He looks like Cary Grant drawn by Disney.

The film's sporadic use of sound is particularly inspired, most notably in a dream where Valentin interacts with his surroundings, taking in the sounds of a phone ringing and faucet dripping as if for the first time (in the film's diegesis, it's the first sound we've heard aside from the score). It feels like a Twilight Zone episode by way of a musical number, and it gives the film a sudden sense of radical purpose.


When it was released in 2011, Michel Hazanavicius's film was something of an outlier. The phrase "French silent film" sounded like it would have about as much broad appeal as "Italian Western." All of those things ended up working out just fine, thus ensuring that The Artist be able to charm its way to the front of the awards season pack thanks largely to buzz built out of Cannes, where it was screened in competition in 2011.

And charm it did. The Artist is an inarguably inoffensive movie meant to make us feel more than think. Would Carl Sagan watch The Artist and then go into his room to "reconsider some things"? Probably not; this is not exactly life-affirming and earth-shaking art. It's an example of the sort of movie that film fans call "love letters." Anything can be a love letter to anything: a love letter to New York, to Paris, to old Hollywood. It's a lovely image, but while watching The Artist in 2017, I wonder who this letter was addressed to.

When The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards, it was seen as a polite and predictable win. At the time, the other big Oscar contender was The Help, a feel-good movie about black maids in the South that was designed just as much for TNT reruns as it was award season. At the time, the face-off between the two films wasn't really much of one at all. The Artist was an actively uncomplicated film, which used to be enough. Now, it's akin to firing a shot.

Its closest proxy is this year's divisive La La Land, which, much like The Artist, borrows flourishes and textures from a different era, albeit with a decidedly more commercial and contemporary lean. In La La Land, musicals of yesteryear serve as a well of inspiration to dip into; in The Artist, Hazanavicius throws us into the deep end of the pool, placing us in the era itself. And in retrospect the image of The Artist and The Help in competition is tense: a film celebrating Hollywood's golden era up against a film in which three black women play maids—the only kind of role available to black actresses in that same "golden era."

The Oscars, as with most cultural events, are now imbued with an overwhelming pressure regarding optics. When it comes to the Oscars, good storytelling makes for good entertainment and can nab you a few golden statues in the process. But what is the story that the Oscars are trying to tell about Hollywood, about culture, about us? This year, the Academy found itself in a tug-of-war à la The Artist vs. The Help, with rightfully adored fan-favorite Moonlight up against the vocal mob-like suspicion of La La Land. Just what, everybody seems to be asking, is this movie trying to get past us?

The Artist is a safe film, but "safe" in a way it no longer should be. It feels culturally agnostic in a moment in which everything is loaded. The Super Bowl becomes a microcosm of a divided nation; the Grammys were another example of racial conflict. Meanwhile, revisiting The Artist and reassessing it feels less about quality and more about context. It feels like an artifact both of the silent era and the era just before this one—before the hyper-politicized moment we find ourselves in, in which a film's success speaks to another film's failure. The Artist reads about as enjoyable as it did the first time I saw it, but it no longer pays to be silent.

Follow Rod Bastanmehr on Twitter.