With dazzling performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a vibrant homage to silent films and the talkies’ falling stars.
Modern Talking by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s no getting round it, The Artist is a silent movie. And as we enter the third age of 3D, let alone talkies, the absurd anachronism of making a silent film has its own curious charm. It’s no doubt been done before, in comedies like Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mel Brooks’ satirical Silent Movie or more recently Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! and Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha. And yet The Artist‘s self-reflective stomp around the transition from silent to talkie, playfully and acrobatically incorporating sound and speechlessness into its narrative, makes it something of a homage to a lost art and its fallen matinee idols. Despite being rooted in the past with its fatalistic Sunset Boulevard sensibilities, The Artist still has something to say about the seismic shifts in the landscape of cinema, as the battle for 3D rages in multiplexes around the globe. And while The Artist has a joyful joie de vivre, 3D is big, bold and brash. Just like Norma Desmond. It’s just the pictures that are getting small.
Which isn’t to say The Artist harps back nostalgically to a bygone era. It’s a spectacular tribute to the silent age, but also so much more. Its stomping opening evokes the black-and-white movies of Hollywood’s heyday, albeit in a slightly bleached-out grayscale, with its rip-roaring score and jocular intertitles. The Artist draws back its curtains on a film within a film – the premiere of A Russian Affair, starring Tinsel Town darling George Valentin as the derring-do hero, caught in an electrifying scrape and a neatly wrapped finale, in which he escapes with a girl, a gun and a free Georgia. And as we cut between the film and its audience’s reactions of shock, awe and laughter, the soundscape, with its swinging accompaniment, remains unapologetically non-diegetic. Until George, behind the silver screen, awaits and is finally enraptured by the crowd’s unheard applause. And so the game begins.
But first we’re treated to some good old-fashioned mime antics. And Jean Dujardin makes a fantastic leading man with his brillantined hair, his pencil-line moustache à la Douglas Fairbanks and all the top-hat and terrier elegance of The Thin Man. His whole body acting hits just the right note, impressing the crowd and hogging the limelight with his doggy double act, his routines good-natured and charming enough to melt all hearts except that of his wandering wife. His silent antics offer a humorous romp into a forgotten world of winking and eyebrow raising stopping just the right side of mugging as he bumps into Peppy Miller outside the theatre. Appearing on the front page of Variety the next day with the headline “Who’s That Girl?” it’s not long before the perky Peppy wiles her way into a dancing job on George’s next film. Making eyes at each other across the Kinograph Studios, Peppy and George kick step together blindly, their anonymous legs concealed by a screen. And as Bérénice Bejo sidles into George’s dressing room to say thank you and make love to his coat rack and tails, romance seeps into celluloid rushes, with George and Peppy redoing take after take, unable to complete their dance scene or release each other from their onscreen gaze.
And there’s politics too, as Valentin upstages director-producer Al Zimmer, a stand-in for star-creator Louis B. Mayer, when the star forces the director to keep the young upstart in his film. Or the silent movie idol’s fall from grace with the advent of sound, reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks’ own plunge into obscurity. And with the public baying for new faces and new voices, the sequence of Valentin’s nightmare is a breathtaking show-stealer. He dreams a nightmarish vision in sound, where glasses placed on counters suddenly do make diegetic noises, and where foley artists sync up footsteps and laughter. Only George can’t speak. And it’s this bravura dream sequence which provides the emotional backdrop to the rest of film culminating in a mute scream; George is incapable of making the leap into the brave new world of talkies.
The nightmare becomes a reality, as Pepper Miller climbs up the title card and George Valentin ends up slipping off the marquee billing. In the end, he resorts to producing his own silent films, spending his fortune on The Tears Of Love, an old-fashioned adventure that sees George sinking up to his neck in not just metaphorical quicksand. The film goes head to head with the Black Tuesday stock market crash and Peppy Miller’s The Beauty Spot, her grease-painted freckle George’s own creation – something to make her stand out from the crowd. But mired by his film’s sudden anachronism, George loses his wife, his chauffeur and all his worldly goods. And as the plot follows its own vaudevillian rags-to-riches, washed-up actor story, its narrative is paralleled by the titles of its films’ posters, from Thief of Her Heart and Pennies From Heaven to Lonely Star and Guardian Angel. It’s a love of cinema in all its forms that pervades The Artist, riffing on its haunting rearrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s score of the Love Theme from Vertigo, or Bérénice Bejo’s stairwell whistling that recalls Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
And while The Artist‘s cartoonesque melancholy is sometimes enough to recall Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, there are other great self-reflexive moments too, like the terrible, shocking silences that dominate the screen noiselessly. There are the humorously ironic questions too when George’s wife repeatedly asks him, “Why do you refuse to talk?” It’s the million-dollar question that haunts the film – will he or won’t he? And in the end, The Artist deftly avoids the corny trap of having him speak while deftly folding in a neat resolution. As the couple dance with all the gusto and aplomb of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the tap musical Sparkle Of Love, The Artist ends on the sound of their anxious breathing before John Goodman finally breaks the silence with “Cut! Perfect! Action!” But agreeing to a second take, in almost a second ending, George does speak, but it’s offscreen and incidental and with such a throwaway quality it saves the ending from clumsy mawkishness.
With the recent slate of minimalist and virtually dialogue-free films, such as Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff or Pablo Giorgelli’s recently released Las Acacias, the time feels right for a silent film. And with its own structural rigour and cheerful exuberance The Artist fits the billing perfectly. It’s intelligent and charming, and with all the feel-good comfort of a Hollywood golden oldie. Its story is perhaps a little off-the-shelf, strung together with brilliant set-pieces that help the B-movie plot slide by unnoticed, but with its Citizen Kane high angles and its Sirkian mise en scène, The Artist is a joyful homage to all types of cinema, whether silent, talkie or musical, adventure caper or melodrama. It might not have any 3D sequences, but Hazanavicius is certainly here to face the music. And dance.
The Artist is released on 30th December 2011 in the UK