“Speak!” announces a title card in the opening sequence of Michel Hazanavicius’ award-winning film, The Artist. A dashing middle-aged man is being tortured on-screen as he is repeatedly shocked with high voltage currency in an attempt to break his silence. Without any preparation, we cut to a smartly dressed audience in a cinema auditorium, visibly enthralled by something they are seeing. A reverse angle reveals that they are watching the torture scene we ourselves have just seen. Now we are both watching the same movie, and both equally thrilled – though ours is doubled through our awareness.
We cut again, without explanation, to another room where the actor playing the dashing man on-screen paces anxiously, waiting… listening to something we cannot hear. In the background, a sign reads: “Please be silent behind screen.” We cut back to the audience, who applaud…silently. The man laughs…silently. Only then do we truly accept and fully understand that what we’re watching is a silent movie. I promise you: nothing – not pre-knowledge or any of the ecstatic reviews and publicity this movie-gem has received – will diminish the thrill of that moment. This is the film’s first powerful hook – one of many – and from then on, the pleasures only multiply.
The opening sequence also plants in our mind the idea that silence will be key not just to the film’s form but also its content. And, as the story unfolds before us – in the classic, box-style aspect ratio (4:3) used in Hollywood silent films – we will see how silence crushes relationships, endangers dreams and leads almost inevitably to isolation and great despair. Silence is and is not golden. But what it most certainly is not is a gimmick. The film’s great success lies in the fine balance it strikes between joyously celebrating cinema’s past, and dramatically examining the lives of people who are disconnected from their dreams. This is why it feels modern – this is why it has had such huge cross-over appeal and won such critical acclaim. The film works because it transcends pastiche, and takes it subject seriously.
The story is simple, and will not be unfamiliar to those who know film history. Like the film “A Star is Born”, co-written and directed by Hollywood stalwart William Wellman (and later remade by George Cukor and again by Frank Pierson), it tells the story of an older actor who helps to launch the career of a younger actress as his own star is in decline. Like the Billy Wilder classic, Sunset Boulevard, it shows the loneliness and bitterness that overcame the forgotten stars of the silent era. One can even see – in its brilliant evocation of the star’s illusory power in a land where money men rule – echoes of Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. But what makes this film stand out from its predecessors is its irrepressible optimism; it’s joie de vivre.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the exaggerated smiles, winks and expressions of its two leads.Jean Dujardin is a revelation in the title role. A dead-ringer for Walt Disney – with trimmed moustache, brimming smile and brylcreemed hair – he exudes charm and sophistication with seemingly no effort at all. Somehow, he’s able to turn his character George Valentine’s cockiness into a virtue. It’s a wonder to behold. Such is the power of his onscreen presence that he is able to carry the film for 100 minutes with only one line of audible dialogue. And as the last act neared its conclusion (with me hopelessly captivated by its exuberant final flourish), I couldn’t help but think that, in some way, his whole life must have prepared him for this role. (Yes, of course, I know this is probably fancy, but still…when it works cinema makes you forget yourself.)
Berenice Bejo as the rising star Peppy Miller is wonderful too in her own sweet way. Even now, two weeks after I’ve seen the film, I’m still blowing kisses at my daughters in her inimitable fashion. Her most unforgettable moment, however, is the scene in which sneaks into George Valentine’s dressing room, puts her hand inside his jacket (which hangs on a coat rack) and pretends that he’s caressing her. The precision of the illusion is spell-binding, and gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it. The way her hand moves with all the caution one expects of a first touch, seemingly independent from the rest of her body; the perfect symmetry of it all. OK, OK, I’ll try to contain myself, but let me just say one more thing about this very special moment in the film. When I got back from the cinema, I immediately sat down to read James Bell’s excellent feature for Sight and Sound International Film Magazine on The Artist (v22:1). In it he shows how this scene “quotes from a similar moment” in a film from 1927 called 7th Heaven. That film starred Janet Gaynor, who played the female lead in William Wellman’s aforementioned “A Star is Born.” Have no doubt that this was entirely deliberate. It’s the kind of thing I’ve come to hero-worship Martin Scorsese for (I hope to blog about his technique of cinematic quotation more in the future) but here Hazanavicius certainly shows he knows how to do it well. How can you not be in awe of such creatively applied intelligence?
There are other noteworthy aspects of the film too. The magnificent (cliché busting) scene in which George’s shadow recognises that he’s a shadow of his former self and walks away. The camera movements throughout are exemplary, especially when it inverts so beautifully in the shot of George reflected in a mirrored-table. The blocking (i.e. the positioning and movement) of actors and extras in the staircase scene is outstanding. The way sound is introduced (in the film and the world of the film) is absolutely delightful. The fantastic score and fantastic sets. The use of silent era editing techniques, like the iris (to mark big transitions between scenes) and the headline news montage sequence (to drop in exposition and push the story forward). And all of the other subtle film references (for instance, the shot of the most famous studio gates in the world and the loyal Chauffeur character played by James Cromwell which echo Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard). All of it – utterly utterly marvelous, and a fitting tribute to the best of Hollywood film history.
Truly, the Artist is one of those films where you really can believe the hype. It’s perfect. Cinema at its joyous best.
If you liked this review, please leave me a comment, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and check out my blog on Christopher Marclay’s masterpiece The Clock (http://wp.me/pXjev-1W). You can also sign up to receive new posts by email by following the links on this page. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts about this film. All the best, Darwin.