It’s easy to parody the contempo art scene, but extremely difficult to do it well. “The Artist” not only rises to the challenge but sets the bar high for anyone wanting to cover similar material. Some of the credit goes to scripter Andres Duprat, a contemporary arts curator who knows this world intimately and captures its shallower aspects, but helmers Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat deserve equal praise for their meticulously framed images and superb minimalist touches, quietly exploding with sharp wit. Arthouses worldwide should confidently display this gem on their screens.
Jorge Ramirez (Sergio Pangaro), an orderly in a geriatric home, tries to interest a gallery in drawings he claims are his, but were in fact done by apparently gaga patient Romano (noted novelist Alberto Laiseca). Told he needs to present a dossier before he can get his foot in the door, Jorge prepares the necessary bloated resume and impresses gallery owner Losada (Enrique Gagliese), who offers him a show.
The exhibition is a hit, and Jorge becomes a darling of the sycophants. Critics outvie themselves with meaningless, pretentious reviews recognizable to anyone who’s thumbed through magazines like Artforum, and in a neat trick, the helmers use hilarious p.o.v. shots, from the perspective of the drawings, of “art lovers” spouting self-satisfied lines formulated to impress those around them. Curator Emiliano (scripter Duprat) contextualizes the work with references to Jean Dubuffet, and Jorge eats up the attention while trying to avoid saying anything about the art he’s passing off as his own.
Newcomers to the scene, and those unfamiliar with the filmmakers’ inhouse credentials, may come away thinking “The Artist” is ridiculing the entire arts establishment; in truth, it’s skewering the false elements and demanding that viewers question their relationship to the art they view without mimicking received opinion. Wisely, the helmers avoid revealing Romano’s drawings, though they do show artworks with obvious parallels to the work done by stars of the current scene, such as Damien Hirst’s “Pharmacy.”
Pic’s insider feel is boosted not just by Duprat, but artist Leon Ferrari as one of the producers and other cast members drawn from Argentina’s avant-garde literary and arts community. Pangaro, a singer, deliberately plays it blank, conceiving Jorge as an opportunist enjoying his scam — he’s a Chauncey Gardiner with a streak of duplicity. Laiseca relishes his screen time as Romano, especially when in the throes of artistic inspiration, his facial muscles seemingly tied in with the flourishes of his pencil-gripping hand.
Helmers Cohn and Duprat have an impressive list of experimental films to their credit, and their expert understanding of framing, with amusingly intense closeups, is a joy to behold. Lensing only what’s absolutely necessary with a still camera, together with editor Santiago Ricco they achieve more with montage than most directors manage with wildly moving cameras. Use of offscreen space is both playful and sophisticated, enhanced by superb sound design.