Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” – Everything old is new again

Poster for "The Artist"

There’s a curious trend in modern cinema to slavishly replicate film techniques from years gone by. In some cases, the decision seems purely stylistic – in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, for instance, contemporaneous TV cameras were used to recreate the period look and feel of HBO boxing matches. This deliberate reduction in visual quality seems meant to provoke nostalgia, as well as ground the film in some kind of documentary-style reality as a recent period piece. But never before have I see such deliberate eschewing of modern cinematic technology – in a way that works entirely in favor of style – as in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, which is a genuine black-and-white, silent film, made this year in Hollywood. Given that the film depicts the transition from silent to talking pictures, this format not only feels appropriate for the subject matter, but is seemingly the only format in which this story could have been told.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a popular silent film star who has just been told rather tactlessly by his studio head (John Goodman) that the future of cinema is in talking pictures. If this is the future, [a title card informs us he says], “They can have it!” Valentin’s career immediately begins to fade into silent obscurity, even as he inadvertently launches the career of rising star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose voice (we’re told) is exquisite enough to attract patrons of the new cinema.

This film is a bit paradoxical, since it could be construed just as easily as a love letter to silent film or a self-aware satire of its constraints. We are “told” a number of silent film’s shortcomings, and “hear” all about old actors mugging for the camera instead of giving fully realized performances. Valentin is a curmudgeonly figure, and a great deal of the character’s sympathy lies in the outside knowledge that his career was doomed from the outset of the film. There’s the obvious point that talking pictures were indeed the future of cinema. The film’s audience knows it, even if the characters do not. There’s also some “Inside Baseball” type context: the rise of talking pictures also marked the beginnings of the studio system, in which actors were contractually beholden to the powerful studios that had discovered them. They owned the actors, as well as every level of production and distribution. Given that Valentin is unwilling to play ball with the new method of film production, his career is unquestionably at an end. Back then, they could say “you’ll never work in this town again”, and it actually meant something.

Still from "The Artist"

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

This is not to say the film was entirely believable – the romance was a hard sell, despite the impressive standalone performances of the two leads – it’s hard to buy them as anything but old friends as the film goes on. The first half was a bit too slow, getting bogged down with history instead of advancing the story. Even so, the tone of the film feels more like a fairy-tale than an accurate depiction of the demise of silent film. But at this point, I must admit – my knowledge of silent film is rather limited. At the time of this writing, I could recall seeing exactly one other silent film – Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. While I can’t comment on the parallels (if any) between the fictitious George Valentin and any real-life silent film stars, I do know that all art should stand on its own, and George Valentin is indeed an artist. His obstinate refusal to conform to a new method of artistry could be seen as either noble or foolish, depending on your perspective – but the parallels to modern franchise films and 3D are readily apparent. The future of cinema may or may not lie under the cape of the most popular superhero of the present year, but there are plenty of beloved and respected actors who have made the transition into big-budget comic-book cinema. And while I won’t presume to know the minds of Sirs Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Ben Kingsley, and others – I imagine they would have a great deal to say about the nobility of eschewing one’s own pride in favor of elevating a new form of cinema. Or perhaps they just did it for the money. Who knows.

It is not for us to judge Valentin too harshly, but the film certainly sells the nobility of his struggle. The Artist crafts a complex character’s journey without overly relying on title cards, and conveying a great deal of story via background set design – a technique that has remained effective to this day (Children of Men is a recent example). In the present day, we have no choice but to regard silent film as an anachronistic technical limitation. But in its day, it was the engine that propelled innovative storytelling, and Hazanavicius clearly understands how it succeeded. This film could have been a baseless technical exercise, but with this execution, it’s nothing short of a modern classic.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10