The hype around this movie was ridiculous and only increased with the Oscar wins (which are meaningless, but anyway…). I just want to address that before I actually tell you what I think of the movie.
It’s not novel to take inspiration from silent films. Canada’s own Guy Maddin has been taking inspiration from silent films for the better part of his career, and doing so in such an original way that he practically invented his own style of filmmaking – though his films are less indebted to silent cinema than they used to be. And there have been lots of other filmmakers who have taken inspiration from either silent or other traditional forms of cinema. Few to none of these filmmakers have received the kind of acclaim that this movie has received, and that is really too bad. (Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, to pick just one non-Maddin film, is an excellent example of a film taking inspiration from the silent era and bringing something new to it. But you haven’t heard of that movie. Instead, you’ve heard of The Artist.)
This movie got acclaim because it’s easy. Instead of taking inspiration from any of the greats of silent cinema – Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau or numerous others – it takes inspiration from crowd-pleasing crap like It, that famous Clara Bow movie that is on so many lists of great movies but really isn’t worth your time unless you are really, really into romantic comedies and their history.
This movie’s plot is telegraphed, and maybe that’s a deliberate homage to those “simpler” times. But it’s still telegraphed. The artistic elements – Valentin losing his voice/hearing, everyone speaking at the end of the film – are obvious and have been done by other filmmakers in better movies. And, perhaps most importantly for a cinema snob like me, the only limitation this filmmaker put on himself is that this film is (mostly) without dialogue. (It’s not silent, obviously, as there is music. Now there’s been music added to digital copies of most old silent films, but that is, I believe, just an attempt to make them more accessible.) He didn’t make the film with one camera and he certainly didn’t make it with older equipment. Why is that bad? Well, it’s not. But the reason the silent filmmakers were so creative is because they had limited palettes to work with. This guy’s got digital video, many cameras and a huge crew. It is not the same.
This sounds like I’m panning it, I know. But the film is fine. It’s well made for what it is, and, if it encourages people to watch more silent films, then that is wonderful. But it is not the best movie of 2011. It’s not even among the best or better movies of 2011. And we should all be able to recognize this. This is a tired, cliche story with a relatively novel approach to how it is presented, and fine performances. That’s it. It’s not some kind of landmark or something. (It’s also really not that funny. Any movie that has to rely on a dog for humour and pathos…)
I’m glad I watched it. But the movie unfortunately confirmed my fears. This movie got acclaim because it feels unique to people who do not watch enough interesting movies. But it’s not unique. It’s only unique if you watch noisy blockbusters pretty much exclusively.