The Artist

The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and four others, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo, which was also confusingly a Hugo finalist, but not The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life or War Horse.

The Hugo that year went to the first series of Game of Thrones (I was an early adopter of this idea) but I watched the film finalists as well: Hugo (as previously noted), Captain America: The First Avenger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and Source Code. The other four films that I remember seeing from that year are The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, The Iron Lady, Coriolanus, and half of the Iranian film A Separation.

IMDB users rate The Artist a lowly 43rd on one system and a dismal 125th on the other, compared against other 2011 films. We’ve had several others that were in the low 40’s on one ranking, but were much higher on the other – Cavalcade, Shakespeare in Love, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, I think. The 125th place ranking is by far the lowest we have had on either metric, and it’s not even like 2011 was a remarkably good year for films. I too was not hugely impressed by it.

Here’s a trailer.

I counted a couple of actors who had been in Hugo-winning films, and one who had been in a previous Oscar-winner (no crossovers with Doctor Who). The first is Malcolm McDowell, credited here as “the butler” (though his role is actually someone waiting for an audition) and the star of A Clockwork Orange 39 years ago.

Missy Pyle is the mistreated co-star Constance here, and eleven years ago was Lailari the Thermian in Galaxy Quest.

Finally, Beth Grant, Peppy’s unnamed maid here, was the equally unnamed Woman At The Farm House in Rain Man in 1988.

The Artist is entirely in black and white, and almost entirely “silent”, ie the sound track is mostly incidental music, becoming diegetic briefly about 31 minutes in and then for a longer spell at the very end. The last largely black and white film to win the Oscar was Schindler’s List (1993), and the last entirely black and white film to do so was The Apartment (1960, more than fifty years earlier). The only other silent film to win was the very first, Wings, way back in 1927.

The Artist is also generally cited as the only French film to have won an Oscar, but as a patriotic Belgian, I have to point out that the Belgian company uFilm were one of the co-producing companies, utilising a Belgian tax scheme, and the music was recorded in Flagey by the Brussels Philharmonic and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. French Wikipedia calls it “une comédie romantique muette et en noir et blanc franco-belgo-américain” (surely “-américaine”?).

It is about two actors in the early days of sound in the movies; Paul Valentin, who is on his way down because (as we discover at the end) he can’t get hired for the talkies because of his French accent and because he’s generally an asshole, and Peppy Miller, on her way up as she catches the Zeitgeist. He falls on hard times, and she rescues him and finds him some redemption. He also has a cute dog.

I was not very impressed. Before I get to the specifics of plot and cinematography, it’s the most shockingly racist Oscar winner for years. Everyone is white, even in the crowd scenes, apart from some African warriors who turn up on a film set and later in Paul’s delusions. This really is not representative for Hollywood in 1930, or even for France in 2011 when the film was made.

Most of the plot elements have been done before and better (most notably in Singin’ in the Rain and All About Eve). I found it derivative and pastiche rather than integrated. The good bits were not new and the new bits were not very good. Paul is such an unpleasant person at the beginning that it’s difficult to be very pleased by his redemption at the end.

Another point that really grated is that although a lot of attention was paid to make-up for Jean Dujardin as Paul, and for the main women actresses, it wasn’t really done for the extras and it looks like what it is, a lot of twenty-first century people pretending that they are in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two of the first five Oscar winners in the list below (The Broadway Melody and The Grand Hotel) are actually set in that time period because it was when they were made, and The Artist just sits wrong.

A further complaint is that Bérénice Bejo as Peppi is frankly too old for the part. As written, Peppy is clearly in her mid-20s at most; Bejo was 35 when the film was made. For the record, I have complained on this score in the past about men as well as women playing roles that were the wrong age (Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind; also Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves.) Bejo is a good performer in the role, but again it just sits wrong.

Despite not feeling attracted to the character, I did think that Dujardin gave a convincing portrayal of Paul.

And the dog is very cute.

Finally, as a patriotic Belgian, I did like the music.

I’m putting this a long way down my list of Oscar-winners, just outside the bottom ten, below No Country for Old Men, whose protagonist was more awful but more compelling, and above American Beauty which was much more skeevy.

Next up, from 2012: The Avengers (Hugo winner), Argo (Oscar winner), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Bradbury winner).

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)