The Artist arrives on our screens amidst a blizzard of Oscar hype. It’s is a rare thing – a genuinely silent movie. Since the advent of ‘talkies’ in 1929, these have been few and far between, and there certainly hasn’t been a silent mainstream cinematic release in the 21st century. Its silence is perhaps appropriate, as its story centres on silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). The movie opens with the premiere of his new film, A Russian Affair. We see the audience in the auditorium as they are enthralled by the on screen action, before George (along with his dog) comes out from behind the screen to take the plaudits. George is a man who is clearly self-satisfied – the king of Hollywoodland.
Obviously, The Artist’s blissful state of affairs cannot last, or the film would be fairly tedious. We discover that George is unhappily married – his wife scribbles on all the images of him that appear in the papers, giving him gaps in his teeth, absurd monocles, silly facial hair – he meets and is clearly falling for young dancer/actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and, worst of all, ‘talkies’ – films with actual sound are on the horizon.
The Artist reveals itself to have two strands. The first is the changing situation in Hollywood in the late twenties and early thirties, bringing about the collapse of George’s career. The second, set against this background, is a love story. As his marriage falls apart, George grows closer to the increasingly successful Peppy. Can their obvious feelings for each other survive the fact that he’s drifting into oblivion, while she’s growing into one of the biggest stars around?
One of the major positives of The Artist is that the restraints placed by silence seem to have brought a real focus to the writing. There’s no possibility of providing exposition through the dialogue, so there’s no opportunity for laziness. Each scene has to pull its weight and add something. In one particularly memorable sequence we see George and Peppy fall for each other on the set of a film – they are shooting a single, simple scene in which George is meant to briefly dance with Peppy. Through a series of retakes we see them corpse, dance together for far too long, even move in for a kiss. All wordless, but the meaning is clear.
There are a number of lovely scenes like this one in The Artist, and as much as I enjoyed The Artist, I’m not convinced it’s the masterpiece it’s being made out to be. While undoubtedly a charming film, I suspect that it’s the novelty factor as much as the cinematic merit of The Artist that that has caused all the hype. While it’s an impressive achievement, and clearly a labour of love on behalf of the writer and director Michel Hazavanicius, as well as being love letter to Hollywood, I suspect that without it’s USP it might not be regarded as highly as it is.
And since the director has chosen to almost recreate a silent movie in the style of classic silent movies (there are brief scenes when the audience is reminded of the film’s modernity – such as the shot of the audience watching Valentin’s movie, or the dream sequence where he can hear noises, but not speak) the vast majority of The Artist plays as a silent movie that we might be familiar with from the early days of Hollywood. As there’s therefore little in terms of experimentation, it becomes to an extent, simply an exercise in form. Hazavanicius has set himself some restrictions to work within and he does so very successfully. However, it would have been fascinating to instead see, for example, a silent movie set in the contemporary world, with a compelling reason for its silence, or some other modern take on the form.
That said, creating a silent movie for a modern audience is a bold move, and the film has been executed with aplomb. Go to see it expecting an enjoyable and unusual experience, and I think you’ll be happy. Go in expecting a cinematic revolution and you might be disappointed.