A project of such stupefying irrelevance as The Artist doesn’t come around often. Conceived as a pastiche of silent film, presumably covering the years 1927-1933 in which the mute movie breathed its last and in which the action of the current project takes place, Michael Hazanavicius's failed experiment in retro-stylizing achieves a sleek pish-posh look that seems to reflect less a knowledge of how late silent films looked and behaved than a desire to cook up a glossy stylistic stew. There’s a little German Expressionism, an iris-out here and there, a lengthy snippet from the Vertigo soundtrack. None of it matters; it’s all completely dehistoricized and grab-bag random.
Telling once again the story—in its dullest, least inspired form—of a silent film star (Jean Dujardin) unable to make the adjustment to the talkies and a younger ingénue primed for success in the new format (Bérénice Bejo), The Artist punts narrative and characterization in favor of style, but as a pure exercise in look, it’s more or less worthless. Technically skillful and handsome enough as an object, the film has little understanding of, and nothing to say about, movie history or the nature of the cinematic medium. Hazanavicius employs intertitles, shoots in academy ratio, and, with the exception of one dream sequence and the film’s ending, fills the soundtrack with nothing except a persistent musical score. But as quickly becomes evident in watching The Artist, it takes far more than a facility at mimicking the most superficial aspects of classic Hollywood to capture the essence of what made the films from one of the cinema’s most productive periods worthy of lasting memory.