The end of 2011 has been kind to cinephiles. First, we were entertained by the magical and heart-warming tribute to Georges Méliès and cinematic history in Martin Scorsese’s wondrous 3D adventure, Hugo. For many, Scorsese reignited the love of the silent era and consequently, a wistful desire for the magic and storytelling techniques afforded by the rigorous constraints of the silent movie. Astonishingly, only a few months later, we are rewarded. The Artist is not only a love-letter to the silent era in the same way as Hugo, but a cinematic anomaly, recreating the style, and aesthetic of the typical silent film. A daring, bold, creative and utterly wonderful risk, that we can now say, was well worth it.
The film takes place at the tumultuous period that sound invaded the stages of Hollywood, and the lives and careers of many talented performers hung in the balance. Much like Hugo, The Artist is the tale of a man who struggles with the transition (albeit for different reasons) and finds his whole world falling to pieces around him. This man is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an impossibly dashing, and loveable rogue of a performer who exudes the charm and charisma of a silent era Rudolph Valentino and who commands rapturous adoration from his fans. He is never without his canine co-star, Uggie who is almost as skilled in the performing arts as his master.
In the early scenes of the film, we are presented with a viewing of Valentin’s most recent film, A Russian Affair. In one standout scene, George has been captured, and tortured for information but he refuses to talk; a playful foretelling of events, fuelled by Valentin’s pride. Following the film, a chance encounter on the red carpet introduces us to a young flapper by the name of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Inspired by her brief moment of fame, Peppy joins the ranks of desperate film extras and it’s not long before she winds up on the set of the Valentin film. Valentin, smitten by the big eyes and dazzling smile of Peppy, ensures she has every opportunity to shine and the subtle passionate subtext finally becomes tangible on-screen during a fantastic ballroom scene that requires multiple takes due to the excitable energy and simmering emotion of the pair.
Following production, George’s producer, the cigar-chomping Al Zimmer (John Goodman) introduces the future – microphones, and sound, a device ridiculed by Valentin. The stage is now set, and regrettably Valentin’s refusal to embrace the technological advancements in cinema precipitates his downfall. Sound, to Valentin, is a gimmick, a mere fad. Furthermore, it undermines the art of the performer who must communicate a whole spectrum of emotion with only his body language. He is an artist. His absence from the ‘talkies’ results in his eclipse, and eventual replacement on the marquees by Peppy, whose star is rising.
The Artist is currently one of the most talked about films, and the hype surrounding it is deafening. It’s a strong Oscar contender and has already picked up three Golden Globes, and yet I was initially concerned that the world was falling for a gimmick. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Philistine but I think it’s interesting how a silent film, essentially a pre-evolved form of cinema, could contend with contemporary movies that operate on all sensory levels, and include deeper layers of artistry such as voice acting, script-writing and sound design. How The Artist could compete without those features fully-developed is fascinating to see. The answer, in my opinion, is much like that of a blind person who because of their disability gains increased aural faculties. What The Artist lacks in speech and explanatory dialogue, it more than makes up for in rich visual metaphors and (interestingly) the adoption of modern cinematic effects.
The trailer above contains two of my favourite, deliciously simple yet eloquent examples. Peppy signals her feelings for George by slipping her hand through his empty jacket, and indulging in a little frisky action that is both comprehensible and comical. The second scene seeks to express George reflecting on his glory days, and so we see him reflected in a pawn shop window matching his body shape to the tuxedo within. It’s these beautiful little touches that make the film a worthy contender, the ability to say so much without saying anything at all, just as a great silent film should do.
I know silent films may not be for everyone, but with a simple and charming story, some fantastic visuals and the chance to experience cinema almost as it was 80 years ago it’s a rare opportunity to have an entirely different cinema experience.