The charm offensive

Take a bit of A Star Is Born, whichever version, temper with a bit of Singin’ in the Rain, give it a rich sauce of Gallic Charm® … Oh, and shoot it in black and white, and pretend it’s a silent film (which it isn’t really because it’s got music). Win Oscar.

No, not the foreign-language Oscar, which, as Fellini would have said, is a casino. The real big proper best-movie Oscar. And get a gong, too, for lead actor Jean Dujardin. This is a good-news story: it’s a different kind of film, at least, to win the big one. But let us not overstate the wonderfulness of The Artist.

Perhaps I’m a victim of the hype, a part of the inevitable reaction to the cries of ecstasy that have greeted The Artist. All the praise it has received is likely to lead to some disappointment by the time it arrives on our screens, though I didn’t read much about it at all before I saw it. I was aware, simply, that many critics and other commentators were swooning with pleasure over it.

So what’s your problem, De Waal?

Frankly, I think there are a lot of good things about The Artist, but for at least half its length I was bored. For me, The Artist didn’t sustain the interest generated by its first reel, to use that anachronism. The protagonists “meet cute”, in Billy Wilder’s phrase, then obstacles to their love arise, as they must.

Filling the gaps
But then it’s obstacle, obstacle, obstacle until the end. The whole atmosphere of the thing predicts a happy ending, reassuring viewers they will leave the cinema with a good feeling, so we wait through the second reel and well into the third to get there.

What fills the gap is not really interesting or original enough to sustain itself. The film just repeats various plot points until its time limit is drawing near, then resolves itself with a bit of melodrama and another pointlessly charming setpiece. I think it would have been a better film at the length of the old silents — about an hour, no more.

The Artist borrows from other movies and recombines the elements elegantly. But it’s not a film-buff kind of film. That’s not the kind of thing that wins Oscars. What wins Oscars is sentiment, and of that The Artist is not short.

The “silent” aspect of the movie, and its general pastiche of the old silents, is beautifully done. The issue of silence versus sound is well played, too, thematically integrated and so forth. I think we got that within the first 10 minutes, actually.

For myself, I found the charm excessive. Watching it was a bit like being seduced by some oleaginous gigolo, the kind who relentlessly tops up your wine glass almost before you’ve had a sip. It’s like the saleswoman who emphasises her cleavage and pretends she’s finding you extremely attractive just to enhance her pitch.

Perhaps that’s unfair. Every cultural product has a right to try to charm you into buying its wares — even if that requires the over-use of a cute little doggie. Maybe I just prefer cats.

Read Peter Bradshaw’s take here.

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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