This past Oscar season has seen a number of films pay homage to the classic Hollywood era. Such pictures as The Artist, Hugo and My Week with Marilyn have made metaphorical sacrifices to the gods of cinema, and took home golden calves of Oscars because of it. But these films did not avoid criticism for worshipping at the altar of The Golden Age of movies, particularly The Artist, which won Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.
As if filmed with a rose-colored lens, The Artist captured a romanticized and charming version of silent cinema. This in no way undermines the quality of the film, but it fails as a holistic representation of the silent era, especially in its depiction of the era's more poignant uses of cinematic devices. Compare The Artist, for example, to 1927's Sunrise, one of the greatest silent films ever made, and you will find The Artist artistic director Michel Hazanavicius's tribute to be sorely lacking pictorial power.
Directed by a pillar of the silent era, F.W. Murnau, Sunrise preceded the heyday of the Hollywood studio system by just three years. The film was made during the tumultuous transition from silent to talking movies seen in The Artist, with much of the structure which would come to dominate the talkies of the '30s already in place.
Using highly stylized mise-enscene and subtle décor, Murnau was able to trigger different tones throughout Sunrise. Compare, then, this visual variety to the style of The Artist, and you will find an influential cinematic movement, German Expressionism, completely ignored by the latter film.
Another shortcoming of The Artist is its use of the moving camera. Used throughout the entirety of the picture, it fails to heighten or truly bring to life the movie's emotional core. When you consider this stylistic flaw alongside one of the most famous tracking sequences of silent history, which is found in Sunrise, the audience suddenly finds itself wanting. Instead of capturing the power of the tracking shot, The Artist plays on the charm of what it portrays as a bygone art.
The Artist does, however, usurp Sunrise in its level of acting. Jean Dujardin, the leading man in The Artist, delivers a wonderful performance which embodies the oxymoronic subtle caricature. And as Dujardin's feminine counterpart, the equally skillful and physically eloquent Bérénice Bejo presents a performance which is arguably superior to the film's male lead. In contrast, George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor, the two protagonists of Sunrise, deliver highly stylized and overly dramatic performances, especially in O'Brien's case.
When I first reviewed The Artist four months ago, I described it as an instant classic. It captures the eloquence of the silent era but establishes itself as a modern gem, which is exactly what the film is - modern. The Artist, as displayed through its narrative, characterizes silent film as belonging to a romantic past which must necessarily be abandoned in the face of modern advances. But despite being an immensely entertaining and well-crafted film, The Artist fails to live up to silent masterpieces like Murnau's Sunrise.