Most people simply aren’t used to watching silent films anymore. When once they were the only form of the medium, now they are primarily watched by film students and those who have a deeper appreciation of film and its history than the average ‘let’s go watch Battleship coz things go bang’ filmgoer. Or at least that’s often the perception anyway.
However, The Artist has the ability change that. It has brought silent films into the public eye from whence it disappeared and acts as a reminder of what it is that makes films in general so enthralling, so mesmerising, and why we continue to dedicate so much of our time to them.
It’s the late 1920s and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the star of the silent movie era. However, following a chance encounter, some of his stardom rubs off on beautiful extra Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who soon finds herself thrust into the limelight of the new talkie phenomenon. Unable to accept that silent movies are soon to be a thing of the past, Valentin’s life spirals out of control as he tries to ensure he doesn’t go the same way.
For those unfamiliar with silent films, The Artist may take a little getting used to, but persevere and you’ll discover a form of storytelling so pure and true that Hollywood blockbusters will seem even more absurd than many already do. It won’t be long before the lack of true sound becomes unnoticeable and the only issue of any importance is the stories of the characters. It is a simple film, but so much is conveyed in that simplicity. A medium close up of a troubled face with a single tear slowly rolling down its cheek conveys more emotion than some entire films. The ability to connect with characters is one of the most important aspects of a film, and by stripping down to basics and taking away distractions that blight more outlandish productions, The Artist makes you connect with its characters on the most personal of levels.
Dujardin portrays Valentin masterfully as the arrogant lead unable to move with the times. Without the ability to talk, an actor’s skill set is tested that little bit further, required to tell a story through mannerisms and expressions alone (plus the odd title card here and there). Dujardin does a superb job of channeling famous actors of a bygone era, such as Chaplin, Fairbanks and Lloyd, whilst still making you believe in Valentin himself as a genuine 1920s actor. Bejo is equally engaging as Miller, trying to balance her new found fame with her fondness for the failing Valentin, and together they have wonderful chemistry; the kind that became a staple of the original silent films.
The thing about The Artist is that, whilst it is a silent film, it plays around with the conventions of the medium, at times making it more a homage than a down-the-line period piece. There are plenty of techniques used that were commonly employed at the time; for example it’s in 1:33 aspect ratio, uses wipes and dissolves, basic camera trickery, and simple (but effective) visual jokes – a lovely gag involves Miller on her own messing around with Valentin’s coat, pretending to be seduced by him. There are also nods to other films, not just of the silent era, but also black and white and theatrical pieces, such as Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain and the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others.
However, this is also a silent film for the modern era. A flick of the middle finger would not have found its way into 1920s cinema but here is displayed within the first ten minutes. Director Michel Hazanavicius has managed to create a film that is so obviously from a time gone by but yet feels fresh and for a modern audience. The subject matter of one medium becoming obsolete in favour of another is one that is ubiquitous and ever relevant, which puts it in good stead to stand the test of time.
Those vehemently against the idea of watching silent films will likely see nothing in The Artist that will suddenly make them rush out and buy a Buster Keaton boxset, but for those open to the idea, there’s a film that’s brilliantly simple in its design yet immensely rewarding in its delivery.
Words: Chris Thomson