The Artist, 2011.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius.
Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Anne Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell and Uggie.
George Valentin, a star of the silent era, faces the dawn of sound cinema.
Silent films are easy enough to watch at home. Chaplin has recently had another box set released for Christmas and the Laurel and Hardy collection permanently lingers around the gift idea sections of HMV. Their quality gets them through the distractions of home viewing, but it’s nothing like experiencing silence in the cinema.
Such opportunities are rare. Not counting University screenings, I’ve only ever seen two in a theatre – a Chaplin short film marathon a couple of Christmases ago at the BFI, and Keaton’s The General at the Prince Charles a few months back. The novelty is so overwhelming that, after a while, you forget it’s a novelty; you forget what you’re watching is a silent film. It’s simply a film, like any other.
The Artist is a loving tribute to the era, to Fritz Lang, King Vidor and Eric von Stroheim, silence, black and white and 1:33 aspect ratios. “You’d be crazy to make a black and white, silent film,” Michel Hazanavicius, the director, recalled what everyone told him before production began, in the question and answer session following the screening. “They’re right,” he said immediately after, a cheekily boyish grin breaking across his face.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a Douglas Fairbanks-esque star of the 1920s. His films all appear to follow the same narrative, where his trusty, sidekick dog, Uggy, eventually saves the day. The Artist opens on one such film, on a scene where a pair of unnamed captors are torturing George. Uggy, as always, is busy orchestrating an escape plan. Eventually, we’re given a shot of the cinema watching George’s film at its premiere, a mirror of our audience seated in reality. They’re shown in rapturous applause at its conclusion, yet still muted in the film’s silence. Your imagination leaps to fill the void, colouring the quiet and making the clapping louder and richer than any sound recordist could ever hope.
George is married, but also starting to fall for Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young film extra. Their lives continue to entwine throughout the film. Miller cares very deeply about George, but his self-centredness blinds him to her help. Peppy Miller, George Valentin – the names, like the film entire, are so innocent you cannot help but concede to their charm.
The sequence where George realises his feelings towards Peppy is enchanting. Shooting a scene for his latest film, ‘A German Affair’, George plays a spy and must walk across a dance floor, comically acting discreet. Peppy is one of the extras with whom he briefly dances. They become caught in each other’s stare, momentarily forgetting all those – the cast, the crew – around them. They laugh upon realising that the take is ruined, so the shot burns out and they go again, each time falling in love a little more.
The sequence appears as though they are outtakes from ‘A German Affair’, all in silence with the mechanics of film (the flare at the end of each shot) laid bare. The Artist is as much a tribute to a cinematic format, as well as a period and genre.
“It’s the future,” reads the black and white placard of Al Zimmer’s (John Goodman), the studio’s head producer, declaration on sound cinema. George howls at the idea. It’s a gimmick, it’ll never catch on, reads his expression as he swaggers confidently from the theatre in which Zimmer had shown him an example. There’s no future in that.
Well, not for him anyway.
But there is for Peppy. By this point, she’s worked her way up the bill to carrying films on her own. George wants nothing to do with sound cinema and leaves Zimmer. Peppy is brought in to fill his place.
George invests all his money into a film of his own making – a silent one, entitled 'Tears of Love', to compete against the beckoning noise. It’s a tragic masterpiece where the hero dies at the end, but audiences have flocked to the theatre next door, watching Peppy’s first sound film. Along with the stock market crash, George is financially ruined.
It sounds sombre, but your laughs will be amongst the most sincere you’ve ever enjoyed in a cinema. The comedy is completely visual. Sideways glances to each other, slight movements of the hand, cheesy facial expressions – the timing is impeccable, as is the composition within the frame. All the limitations – the absence of both sound and colour – both refine and free The Artist.
Effectively, the entire film is structured around a single gag – why won’t George Valentin speak? He has lost his job, his wife, his wealth, yet still he refuses to embrace sound. There’s a wonderful innocence to a narrative being so tongue-in-cheek and simple, and fully deserves the Oscar buzz it is currently receiving.
Although technically a French film, The Artist is not nominated within the Foreign Language category. It’s one of the perks of silent cinema – movies of that era could be exhibited around the world with little regard of the native tongue. A Swedish film could be understood equally in both America and Spain. The coming of sound toppled this like the Tower of Babel.
If it wins, it’ll be the first silent movie in 80 years to do so. That’s quite something. In your face, 3D.
365 Days, 100 Films