Oscar favorites usually underwhelm me (I’m looking at you, The King’s Speech!), but The Artist is a delightful exception. It’s a beautiful silent picture, an examination of the transition from silent films to talkies, and an exploration of the experience of watching films, all rolled into a joyous love letter to the movies.
I’m a classic movie buff, but I’m usually annoyed and disappointed when present-day films try to emulate the classics. I think films like Down with Love, The Good German, and Red Tails are overly stylized, stilted, and airless. The filmmakers say they’re paying homage to films like Pillow Talk, Casablanca, or other WWII epics, but that doesn’t mean that the newer films should be sub-par according to current standards. I think the self-conscious attempts at mimicry, without real love and respect for the originals, ruin the so-called homages. And that’s how The Artist is gloriously different: rather than just analyze elements of silent pictures and musicals from a critical distance, director Michael Hazanavicius seems to love the original classics. This full embrace of the originals allows him to make a film that is at once a faithful reproduction of a silent picture and an accessible, entertaining movie for present-day audiences.
The film that The Artist most evokes for me is Singin’ in the Rain, one of my all-time favorites. The 1952 musical played like an accompanying soundtrack in my head as I watched the new film. Both films affectionately skewer Hollywood’s assembly-line output (their leads walk through sets for drawing room dramas, westerns, train robberies, and jungle adventures, all shooting simultaneously). “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all!” a character says about studio pictures in Singin’ in the Rain; in a nod to that sentiment, The Artist’s films-within-the-film are named A Russian Affair and A German Affair, suggesting their interchangeability. At the same time, SitR and The Artist seem to respect the level of cinematic achievement that the best silent pictures represent; they also celebrate the musicals which the transition to sound makes possible. Jean Dujardin, playing silent film star George Valentin, resembles Gene Kelly and displays some of the inimitable Donald O’ Connor’s loose-limbed vaudevillian talents. George’s disgruntled co-star Constance seems patterned after SitR’s scheming Lena Lamont. Constance’s awkward sound test, in which she plays Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene opposite a microphone rather than a Romeo, recalls Lena’s difficulty incorporating a microphone into her performance and her hilarious protest, “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” Bérénice Bejo’s Peppy is the modern incarnation of Debbie Reynolds’s Kathy Selden, the ingénue who encourages the silent film star into the era of the talkies. While Singin’ in the Rain deals with this transition with humor, The Artist acknowledges the anxiety and sense of loss that accompany the process.
The Artist opens with a scene from a film within the film, A Russian Affair. George’s character, presumably a spy, is being tortured for information. “I won’t say a word,” George’s character exclaims, via a title card. “Speak!” his tormentors pressure him. The exchange foreshadows the advent of the talkies and George’s resistance to it. Then we cut to the movie theater audience watching A Russian Affair, establishing the communal experience of watching movies. The viewing experience is doubled, with us watching the audience watch the film within the film. Finally, the viewing experience is inverted, as we go behind the screen to watch George watching A Russian Affair in reverse on the back of the screen. The sequence is an amazing encapsulation of the multiple layers of viewership involved in watching The Artist, a film about the process of filmmaking.
My favorite sequence in The Artist centers on George and Peppy shooting a scene together. The scene calls for George to cross a dance floor, dancing with Peppy for a few beats in the process. Peppy is just an extra in the scene, and George initially treats her as such, basically a prop he has to hold onto for a few moments to move the action forward. As they continue doing takes, however, George becomes increasingly aware of Peppy in his arms and of his feelings for her. She goes from being a prop to being his whole purpose for the scene. Eventually they’re so absorbed in each other that they just stand there in each other’s arms, the scene they’re supposed to be shooting forgotten. This tender progression, with all its subtle shifts in mood and intensity, is expressed without words. It makes me wonder if the argument that silent pictures represent the art of cinema in its true form is valid; perhaps the essence of cinema is the communication of story and emotions through universally understood facial expressions and body language. George most likely feels that way, which explains why he dismisses talkies as a mere gimmick.
George may be dismissive, but his dream expresses a subconscious anxiety about what the transition to sound means for his career and the industry he loves. The dream sequence starts simply, with George setting a glass down on his dressing table. The sound of the glass clinking on the surface startles George, and the fact that we’re as surprised as he is points out how completely we’ve surrendered to the reality of the film. George’s surprise implies that he’s somehow watching himself in a film and that he doesn’t expect to hear that kind of sound. While he can hear the phone ringing, the dog barking, and traffic noises, he cannot hear his own voice. The dream sequence is a surreal collision of George’s off-screen reality (where he’s able to hear sounds and his own voice) and onscreen existence (in which he wouldn’t be able to hear his voice or any other sounds). The laughing chorus girls and the abandoned studio lot express George’s fears that his reluctance to embrace talkies will make him the laughingstock of the industry and that the new technology will mark the end of filmmaking as he knows it.
The dream ends with a feather falling to the ground with a deafening thunderclap. The disjunction points to one of the challenges of talkies, matching the aural and visual impressions on the screen. It also recalls the more lighthearted treatment of the problem in Singin’ in the Rain: at a preview screening of their first talking picture, The Dueling Cavalier, the filmmakers realize that all the sounds are off – a strand of pearls sliding through a woman’s fingers sounds like sandpaper rubbing together; a man’s walking stick dropping to the ground sounds like a falling boulder; a lady’s fan tapping her lover’s shoulder sounds like she’s smacking him with a two-by-four.
Both The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain point out that the same audiences who were entranced by silent pictures quickly outgrew them, thus outgrowing a particular depiction of reality. Both films, steeped in movie history and love for cinema, show actors and filmmakers struggling to reinvent the depiction of reality on screen to match audience’s new tastes, reinventing an art form and even their own lives in the process.