‘The Artist’ recalls clash between silent and talkie films

“The Artist” provides a modern take on the silent film.
(Courtesy of maguiresmovies.blogspot.com)

“The Artist,” a French film, directed by Michel Havanicivius and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, is an absolute pleasure for any lover of film. The film works as both a homage and a loving parody of classic Hollywood and revels in cinematic clichés. But of course the most striking feature of this film is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film.

The story follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a prolific silent movie lead signed to the fictional Kinescope Studios in the fictional city of Hollywoodland. On the red carpet of his latest movie premiere, Valentin bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a would-be starlet. After making the front page of Variety Magazine for her run in with Valentin, Peppy eventually becomes the new face of Kinescope Studios as it rebrands itself as a studio that makes talkies. Being a silent film star, Valentin is essentially kicked out of his top-dog position. We then follow Valentin’s fall from grace (not helped by the Great Depression) and eventual comeback with some help from his unexpected love interest, Peppy Miller herself.

Ironically, what makes “The Artist” fantastic is how fresh it feels. Formally, the film is anachronistic. First of all, the entire film is in black and white. The photography strictly follows the rules of Hollywood scene dissection, which were at their peak when the film takes place. Shallow focus draws the viewers’ eyes to the center of the frame, and there is eye-line matching abound. It is even shot in the archaic (for film) 4:3 ratio. However, “The Artist” does not feel as slow and deliberate as most classic films. The benefit of modern audiences lets the film clip along at a brisk pace despite the dated, but entirely appropriate, techniques. The movie is also able to draw from a vast history of film for scenes to emulate. For example, there is a near shot-for-shot remake of the breakfast scene from “Citizen Kane” (the montage where Kane sits across from his wife at successive breakfasts and at each subsequent cut they are more and more disinterested with each other). Overall, the film has the clarity and internal formal logic of a classic film, but the pace and experimentation of a contemporary one.

Of course, this talk of anachronism dances around the fact that “The Artist” is a silent film made in the 21st century. Surprisingly enough, it holds up. First off, the score is a perfect fit. Unsurprisingly, the music is ripped straight from a typical classic Hollywood melodrama. It swells and swoons appropriately, and it fills almost the entire film. The most interesting moments of the film are when the score drops out. Though mostly silent, the film does play with the technology of sound. These moments range from subtle to outright sound experiments. As for the former, the opening of the film leaves ambiguous whether it will be silent or not. It begins with the screening of one of Valentin’s premieres. The sound could be the orchestra drowning everything else out. But as the orchestra drops out and we see the audience clap (and hear nothing), then the audience realizes that this will be a silent affair. As for more experimental use of sound, there is a brilliant dream sequence where all that can be heard are sound effects, glasses clinking on tables, dogs barking, things crashing, but no dialogue can be heard. It makes the dream feels incredibly surreal, because of the aural half-reality.

None of this would add up to a great film if it lacked the incredible performances of its leads. Neither Mr. Dujardin nor Ms. Bejo seem at all uncomfortable in silent acting mode, and they carry the film with engaging and sympathetic performances. Neither are shy with the numerous close-ups (more clichés!), especially Bejo, who seems to have Charleston-ed right out of a real silent film. John Goodman has a nice humorous role as the greedy Kinescope Studio executive, and James Cromwell plays a very sympathetic supporting role as Valentin’s butler. Ultimately, Dujardin and Bejo’s onscreen chemistry was the glue that held the entire movie together.

What makes “The Artist” one of the best films of the year and what has lead to its three Golden Globe wins and 10 Academy Award nominations, is that it works on so many levels. It is a heartwarming love story, that could fit among any of the films that it emulates. It is an homage and parody of early classic Hollywood cinema. It is a recreation of a bygone era, and works quite well as a period piece, especially in its costumes. The film also shows the viability of silent film even in this day and age, and even experiments radically with the use of sound in film. Finally, I think the film is incredibly relevant today, because it addresses the growing pains associated with new technologies. As Hollywood butts heads with the American public over copyright and pirating issues, “The Artist” brings up past clashes over technology in and around film. The final message is that despite what technology brings and how it changes film, movies will persist and adapt. The Hollywood show will go on.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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