Movies have undoubtedly changed since the 1920s – sound and colour entered the scene, later on special effects followed and three dimensions as well. Most importantly, the means of expression has changed. Dialogue now plays the main role, often undermining the simple technique of acting – using the artist’s face, gestures and posture to express the feelings. What model, other than the silent movie, showed the characters’ emotions in their purest form, undisturbed by special effects and dialogue? Following that logic, director Michel Hazanavicius has created a beautiful black and white (and silent) movie, The Artist (2011).
Unlike many Golden Globe runner-ups, The Artist is not a deep, complicated psychological drama, but rather a simple, highly enjoyable and touching tale of a well-established silent movies actor who falls in love with a young actress, the newly discovered ‘hit’ of the novel ‘talkies’. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the hero of a series of silent films – he meets sassy, chatty and flirty young actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) outside the movie theatre, when he’s signing autographs. Soon after, they meet again on the film set and the chemistry between them reaches the highest level. Unfortunately, Valentin is married, but not for long – George cannot accept the irresistible change that is taking place in cinematography, namely the introduction of sound. His refusal to take part in the creation of talkies loses him work, fame, his house and, in the end, his wife. Frustrated, forgotten, broke and alone, he finds consolation in the arms of Miller.
Although Michel Hazanavicius has said that the primary purpose of making a silent movie, was to focus on the emotional side of the story and create an enjoyable cinematic ‘novelty’, we can see that the picture is in fact a homage to film classics.
The whole plot could be seen as a remake of A Star is Born (1937) – there are scenes, characters and elements of the story that closely resemble unforgettable moments from Singing in the Rain (1952), while the ‘breakfast montage’, which shows the development and denouement of George’s marriage is an almost exact copy of the scene from Citizen Kane (1941).
George Valentin himself represents a mixture of Rudolph Valentino and Gene Kelly (exactly as his fictional name suggests). No matter how much of an inspiration Hazanavicius has taken from old cinema, he has created an unforgettable experience and included many original ideas. Without going into too much detail, I would advise the future viewers to pay particular attention to the scene when Peppy and George meet at the staircase of the production studio, him going down, her working her way up (just like they did in another story), and the moment when George spills whiskey on a table , where he fights his shadow, where Peppy mimics a romantic pantomime using only George’s coat – all these scenes are entertaining and original in a way that keeps you thinking about them long after leaving the cinema.
In one of his interviews, Hazanavicius explains that in the ‘screening room’ scene, George stays in the light when talking to his producers and moves into shadow after taking a decision on not playing in the ‘talkies’. He is making a mistake, creating an unhappy future for himself, which is shown via artistic means.
The Artist is a one-man show. Jean Dujardin was made for the role – his acting is so American that it’s almost impossible to believe he is actually French. He has the charm, the ‘silent’ wit, the skill to play a tragic role and an even bigger skill to make us laugh, and he uses them without creating a pastiche of silent cinema. He is an independent, individual star – bright and shining.
It may be surprising that using the old, outdated cinematic form created such a stir in the movie world, but Hazanavicius really has proved that silence is golden.
100 mins. Silent. Black and white.