The Artist: Pure Nostalgia or Unique Innovation ?

With Oscar glory comes more backlash over whether or not The Artist is simply rose-tinted nostalgia. Is there any truth in these arguments ?

Michel Hazanavicius€™ charming film The Artist still snagged the major awards at this year€™s predictably safe Oscar ceremony. Beating off competition from such equally acclaimed films such as The Descendants, Moneyball and War Horse, The Artist took home five awards including Best Picture, Best Director and a Leading Actor award for Jean Dujardin. All of this glory, despite being a low budget silent movie, and one which even reportedly drove many cinemagoers to demand a refund. Ever since the initial critical acclaim from its Cannes debut, through to the recent Oscar victory, arguments remain heated over whether or not The Artist actually deserves all of the hype. It may have bowled over every film critic, but to many other filmgoers, it€™s a far more divisive film. At the forefront of these arguments is the question of whether or not The Artist is simply winning over audiences due the nostalgic way it celebrates the filmmaking of the silent era. Is this a film which is simply nothing more than a love letter to the birth of cinema - purely drawing swathes of critical acclaim due to its loving portrayal of the Hollywood of yore ? Or, is there far more to The Artist ? Is it as much of an innovative and groundbreaking film as it is an exercise in warm and fuzzy nostalgia ? In an attempt to see just how The Artist measures up in the argument of nostalgia or innovation, let€™s break down each aspect of the film and take a closer look to see into which camp each area mostly falls. Is The Artist nothing more than a charming throwback, or will stand the test of time as a worthy Oscar winner and a film which looks as far forward as it does back. SPOILER WARNING

Cinematography

The Artist is modestly shot in 4:3 - a format now seen as highly undesirable - and doesn€™t fare much better when it comes to the quality of the image. It€™s authentically crackly, complete with jumpy reel changes and uses of soft focus. However, there€™s far more than meets the eye regarding the visual look and feel of The Artist, with cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman making the film defy its seemingly humble looks with just as many sequences which are visually astonishing. Take the scene in which George Valentin (Dujardin) finds himself caught under the leering shadows of his old possessions, or when he passes a shop window to see his reflection looking back at him sporting a dapper tuxedo. Many other moments are equally as visually stunning, including the scene in which his apartment goes up in flames and the glitzy dance routines. Perhaps it€™s a more contentious BAFTA win - with films such as Oscar winner Hugo and Steven Spielberg's War Horse offering some of the most stunning and sumptuous cinematography of the year - but the visuals of The Artist often go well beyond being pure emulation of the birth of cinema. Verdict: Innovation - Guillaume Schiffman gives the film an authentic silent movie look and feel, but also offers some beautifully framed sequences which feel undeniably unique, lavish and even modern.

Performances

After picking up the BAFTA for Leading Actor, Jean Dujardin also managed to sweep the Oscar from underneath fellow favourites George Clooney and Gary Oldman. Despite carrying several similar nominations in the Leading Actress category, the equally impressive Bérénice Bejo couldn€™t escape a sudden, but inevitable betrayal, from a Margret Thatcher impression. It has to be said that Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and yes, Uggie the dog, are all pitch perfect in their roles within The Artist, and fully deserving of each nomination they received. Where things become a little more complicated is in the question of whether or not Jean Dujardin actually deserved to take the coveted statuette. It€™s easily arguable that both Clooney and Oldman€™s nominated performances displayed a finer range of acting chops - with Oldman in particular delivering a stunning performance as the almost silent George Smiley in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. This also brings us to our question of nostalgia or innovation, and while the performances in The Artist are no doubt fantastic, this is one camp which falls a little more heavily into pure nostalgia. Durjardin€™s mannerisms and cocky charm are heavily based on such silent movie actors as Douglas Fairbanks, who had warmth and personality on stage and screen, but soon led difficult and troublesome lives with the advent of talkies. Verdict: Nostalgia - It€™s a close one, but of all the elements of The Artist that could be argued to be purely nostalgic, it€™d be the incredible but clearly well researched performances of its cast.

Music

The Artist definitely deserved many of its award wins, but Best Original Score maybe wasn€™t one of them. Don€™t get me wrong, it€™s a stunning score and one which perfectly fits the film as well as contributing greatly towards its silent era feel. It€™s also something of a great achievement, due to the fact that as a silent movie, the lack of dialogue and sound puts a pivotal focus on the score to drive the film forwards. In those regards, Ludovic Bource has done an admirable job. Yet, the score is so authentically 1920€™s Hollywood, that it€™s definitely an element of The Artist which is seeped more in pure nostalgia. Something which solidifies this fact is that it even features cues and themes from inspired by existing scores, including traces of Bernard Hermann€™s score from Alfred Hitchcock€™s Vertigo. Bource€™s score is wonderful, and his multiple award wins are well deserved, yet I€™d argue that it wasn€™t the best score of the year and an easy target for those accusing The Artist of being little more than twee traditionalism. Verdict: Nostalgia - It€™s a fantastically peppy and grandiose score, but one that€™s heavily inspired by existing silent movies. For my money, John Williams and Howard Shore were both perhaps more deserving of the Oscar, for their astonishing work on War Horse and Hugo respectively.

Script

There€™s no doubt that the script for The Artist is fantastic. The way it presents the problems facing George Valentin as the talkies take over Hollywood is both tragic and poignant, but ultimately uplifting. It€™s one of those films you can€™t help but walk out from with a huge smile on your face. The BAFTA and Oscar nominations ended up being one of the more contentious aspects of the film€™s award glory, with many scoffing at the idea of a silent movie being nominated for scriptwriting. These criticisms are a little unfair, as Michel Hazanavicius€™ script is clearly something of an achievement. Despite lacking much of what we€™ve come to expect from modern cinema, it offers us an engaging and charming story that stands up in an age of effects heavy, big budget blockbusters. Taking a closer look at the script shows that in the place of dialogue, is richly detailed description, all of which is pivotal in how The Artist works so successfully.
George is in the street wearing his burnt suit and damaged shoes. He is shirtless. With Jack by his side, he walks along the sidewalk. There are a few other people walking along. About twenty yards ahead of him a man is begging. He holds out his hand to passers-by. George approaches and, when there are no other passers-by between him and George, the beggar glances at him and lowers his hand. He doesn't raise it as George approaches. George stops in front of him and looks at him, but the beggar motions to him to scram. George continues on his way. For that moment at least, he has become one of them. He buttons up the collar of his suit in an attempt to hide the fact that he doesn't have a shirt then, heads off and loses himself in the crowd. Some distance later, he stops to check his reflection in a shop window. The image he sees is that of a bum. It's even more striking because the in the window there is a young male mannequin wearing a tux, top hat and white scarf. The image of the mannequin and that of George are superimposed.
When you also consider that Hazanavicius€™ script is full of wildly inventive sequences and uniquely clever ideas, it€™s far more than a simple clone of existing silent movies. Valentin€™s sound effect filled nightmare, or his drunken hallucination of miniature spear wielding extras, are all moments which take The Artist beyond being little more than a routine and run-of-the-mill homage. Verdict: Innovation - Hazanavicius' script makes obvious use of the conventions of silent cinema, but many wildly inventive moments - such as when Valentine is literally taunted by his own personal demons - are far more in tone with the innovative conventions of modern cinema.

Direction

Michel Hazanavicius has frequently claimed that he€™s no expert in the field of silent movies. He is simply more of an avid fan, with many of his interpretations of the era simply being based on the construction of his favourite silent movies. This is perhaps what gave him the freedom to make The Artist much more than simple carbon copy of existing silent movies. His own directorial style runs throughout, which makes it a far more complex film than it might originally appear to be. Hazanavicius does give us many of the things we expect from the era, including exuberant dance numbers, a lavish classical score and even a cliché Hollywood studio boss played by John Goodman. However, it€™s the more outlandish elements of the script that allow Hazanavicius to inject his silent movie with some of his own unique and poetic flourishes. Best of all, The Artist is as much of a throwback to silent film as it is a celebration of the entire filmmaking process - something which definitely helped win over the Academy. The universally filmic words which are spoken over the closing moments of the film couldn€™t make it any clearer that this isn€™t simply a celebration of the birth of film, but also of what it holds for the future. Verdict: Innovation - The Artist isn€™t a carbon copy of existing silent movies, it has a unique personality of its own thanks to Hazanavicius€™ superb direction.

The Verdict

The Artist is heavily draped in the conventions and exuberant spirit of silent cinema, but it€™s clear that it€™s also an incredibly unique and inventive film which does offer pure nostalgia, but with a modern touch. Without being such a faithful and loving depiction of the silent movie era, or without having its own distinctly unique style which Michel Hazanavicius brings to the table, it simply wouldn€™t work as well as it does. The Artist is neither a hollow throwback or a newfangled retelling, it€™s a wonderful blend of the two which fully deserves the critical acclaim and award glory. How do you feel about The Artist's multiple Oscar wins ? Did the film leave you overwhelmed with joy or underwhelmed from all of the hype ?

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Cult horror enthusiast and obsessive videogame fanatic. Stephen considers Jaws to be the single greatest film of all-time and is still pining over the demise of Sega's Dreamcast. As well regularly writing articles for WhatCulture, Stephen also contributes reviews and features to Ginx TV.