No thanks to Justin Timberlake, there’s a terrible cliché: what goes around, comes around. Although I’ve no reason to believe silent “movies” will make a come-back, The Artist (2011) is a genuine pleasure for modern times (a deliberate reference to Charles Chaplin). Michel Hazanavicius, the director and screenwriter, gives us a carefully calibrated recreation of the experience of seeing an original silent film. He’s exploiting the notion of anachronism in a somewhat subversive way. Hence it’s shot in black and white using Academy aspect ratio 4:3. The semiotics of film-making is all too clearly on display as we begin watching a classic film in the adventure style of the late 1920s. The first few minutes obey the rule of the fourth wall. Then the camera pulls back and we see the audience watching the same film with the orchestra in the pit playing the music we hear. Finally, the camera tracks behind the screen to show the cast waiting to be introduced to the audience at the end of the showing. There’s a big notice on the back wall warning those on stage to keep quiet which, of course, they do. In reverse on screen, we therefore see some of the action as the dog rescues the hero and, then, together with the girl, they fly off into the sunset. It’s beautifully judged to set the “stage” for a drama about film, film-making and the consequences of a technological revolution.
Our hero is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Together with Uggie, his faithful Jack Russell terrier, he rules the screen in the tradition of Rudolph Valentino who also literally had women swooning in the streets. Curiously, American men were far less impressed by acting in the style of Valentino, a trend they believed was feminising the male gender roles. American men preferred the Douglas Fairbanks lifestyle and screen persona. To that extent, this Valentin embodies features of both romance and action. To complete the list of talents, this artist can also dance — rather in the spirit of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
The prevailing acting style in 1920’s cinema was, of necessity, closer to mime since only the images were available for the viewer to interpret. By modern standards, this makes most silent films appear very melodramatic. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the rising “it” girl, describes the acting style as mugging the camera, i.e. using the face and heightening the expressions to communicate meaning more directly to the audience. This had been the prevailing theatrical style. In Victorian stage productions, there would be a build-up to intense physical and emotional points which would then have a moment frozen on stage. This frequently ignored the convention of the proscenium arch and had the actors directing their words and dramatic poses to the audience rather than interacting with the other members of the cast. It was not until the middle class in the stalls replaced the working class in the pit that the actors retreated behind the proscenium arch and stopped trying to win the applause of the audience through their extravagant posing. It took the arrival of the twentieth century to produce greater realism of character and behaviour on stage. When the film industry got underway, the Victorian style of acting prevailed as the actors externalised their emotions directly into the cameras. Without speech, they had to rely on expression and gestures — total body language. Only when talkies began could actors revert to the greater realism of characterisation then emerging in stage productions. In a sense, it also marked the change from the stage and cinema being an actor’s domain, to the rule of the director and the script.
In a film, there’s a binary divide. The sound is either on or off (except in this film, where sound effects do make a couple of dramatic appearances for effect while music plays throughout). The key year was 1927 when wax recordings were synchronised with the film projector. It was a big risk for the film industry because it meant rewiring all the cinemas. Warner Brothers proved the value of the investment with The Jazz Singer. This shattered conventional wisdom and forced one of the most expensive commercial revolutions of all time. It was also lightning fast as studios changed over to sound production. Those whose voices did not fit were out. One of the most interesting films about this period is Singin’ in the Rain in which the star Lina (Jean Hagen) has a voice representing sudden death to the film as made, so she’s dubbed by Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). In The Artist, George Valentin also has a voice problem. It may not be the “squeaky voice” of some of the silents stars but, if I was going to be unkind, it might have been a problem for the American audiences of the day. Perhaps the success of Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer might suggest his fears were unfounded.
This is a clever meditation on two difficult human emotions. When we take pride in what we do, we do it well. But if pride gets in the way, it can be our downfall. So when our world is turned upside down by forces we cannot control, how should we react? Here’s a silent star who tries to buck the studio system, loses his money in a futile attempt to run against the tide of technological change, and takes to the bottle. This leaves the second question of whether he can be saved by love, or perhaps that should be whether his pride will prevent him from loving. It’s a strange but all-too-common situation in which some people feel humiliated if they have to be saved by someone else out of love. In this case, George actually has loyal and loving people who could help but, first, he must reconcile with himself.
The Artist (2011) is a very sophisticated piece of film-making and it tells a very human story. On the way, we get to see John Goodman as the boss of the studio who balances a heart of gold against his pursuit of real gold through box office takings, and James Cromwell as the paragon of a faithful servant. Together we embark on a 100 minute journey from the hero’s quiet confidence in his continued success to the pits of despair, and then to that sense of betrayal when it becomes apparent people have been trying to help him without admitting it. It doesn’t matter whether this film and/or its performances win any of the ten Oscars for which it is nominated (it’s not shortlisted as a foreign language film!). This type of film-making deserves to be celebrated albeit that it does say something very interesting about our current attitudes towards nostalgia. Just think. This could be the first silent film to win an Oscar since 1931 — the slowest come-back on record. For everyone who enjoys film as a medium, this is a must-see!
Let the record show that the French film academy gave six Césars to The Artist, including Best Film and Best Director to Michel Hazanavicius. At the Indie Spirit Awards, The Artist pulled in Best Feature, Best Director, Best Male Lead and Best Cinematography. At the 84th Academy Awards, nostalgia triumphed with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor for Jean Dujardin, and others.