In 1927, Harry Warner, of Warner Bros, famously said “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” In 2011, director Michel Hazanavicius put that theory to the test. With surprising backing from Harvey Weinstein, The Artist started life as a silent movie for cinephiles but is now an Oscars success taking home five awards while being nominated for 10.
The Artist is set in 1920’s Hollywood. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the stereotypical silent movie star – slicked hair, groomed moustache and a smile, of which, Colgate would be proud. When Valentin bumps into young Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) in front of on-looking press photographers, the flash bulbs spark a hunger in the aspiring actress which drives her rise to stardom. Miller’s career flourishes in the new world of ‘talkies’ cinema but Valentin’s star wanes and his pride forces him down the road to ruin.
While rumours from multiplex staff suggested that disgruntled customers walked out of The Artist minutes into the film. Not because of any offensive material, but because they had not realised The Artist is a silent movie. True, The Artist is black and white and shot in 1:33 aspect ratio, but The Artist is technically not a silent movie. Hazanavicius uses sound to punctuate the film. A glass being placed on a table becomes a sonic boom as George Valentin realises that silent film is dying.
The Artist is not entirely silent but it is demanding to watch,similar to subtitled films there is a dedication and patience needed to watch it. Daydreamers and
mobile phone texters will miss the subtle glances between characters which move the story without dialogue. The flipside of this is that it immerses theviewer in the film. The Artist demands the full attention of its audience to work and this is where the emotional connection is developed between audience and story.
In terms of cinematic heritage The Artist references the silent comedy of Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin but infuses the romance of Singin’ In The Rain. Hazanavicius’ use of music takes the silent film and gives it warmth which is often lost in pop-song scored films. The Artist’s score gives the audience emotional cues taking them on a journey. Dark themes are underlined with a menace and slapstick moments are uplifted with comical timing. Old techniques brought with freshness and enthusiasm. As Harry Warner said “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” but he also finished by saying “The music — that’s the big plus about this.”
The performances in The Artist are also special. Not just because of the format but, in that, it has been decades since anyone needed to perform in silent films. Dujardin’s portrayal of both George Valentin, the suave Clark Gable-esque film star and George Valentin the broken man, shows a range rarely seen in modern cinema. Initially Valentin is the epitome of charisma yet he is likable. Dujardin over-acts to perfection, teetering on the edge charming and rarely straying into the realm of arrogance. Then, while in the grips of depression, Dujardin cuts a shrunken figure on a fold-out bed.
In essence The Artist is a good old fashioned story dealing with universal issues. One reason why Pixar’s Toy Story appealed to adults is that as modernity progresses people (like toys) like George Valentin become obsolete. The techniques and style of storytelling may be old fashioned but they are not outdated. Scenes which may have been clichéd in the silent era (a dog dragging a policeman to help for example) feel fresh again and act as reminders that clichés were once original ideas. As a result, when The Artist delivers its final twist it doesn’t feel like the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but more like the final flourish of a painter’s brush. This may not be the future of cinema but it is a good reminder of its roots.