If you’re going to see The Artist there are three things you should be aware of. First and foremost, The Artist is a silent film. This means there’s no dialogue and no sound effects – the only thing you’ll hear is the admittedly terrific score by composer Ludovic Bource. Secondly, the film is entirely in black and white. Finally, The Artist is presented in the classic box aspect ratio used by early silent films. That’s to say it isn’t in the contemporary widescreen format we’re used to; it doesn’t use the full size of cinema screens. I issue these dire warnings because there are reports of people who have walked into and promptly out of screenings only to subsequently complain about the lack of sound and colour and improperly calibrated screen size. Don’t be so foolish.
And yet I can already hear the preconceptions: ‘it’s just some arty movie that I won’t like’ and ‘black and white… who does that anymore?’ Sin City for one but, more and more, people tend to assume they won’t like something without even giving it a try. Many people haven’t even seen a silent film before and just assume they’ll dislike it. Don’t be silly, The Artist might surprise you – it surprised me.
Of course, it is fair to say that The Artist is ‘just some arty movie’ but it’s a damn good one at that. Like Hugo, The Artist is a tribute to early cinema, this time focussing on the downfall of the silent film era and rise of the talkies. French director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a wonderful homage to the silent era and takes full advantage of its image-focussed form to convey a story in the vein of Singin’ in the Rain. You could probably trick someone into thinking it was filmed in the heyday of the silent era, though I could have done without the smaller screen size.
Jean Dujardin is George Valentin, a popular silent film star who develops a teetering romance with wannabe actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), even pencilling in her beauty spot. But then the talkies come, and Valentin is unceremoniously dropped by his cigar-chomping studio boss (John Goodman) only to be replaced by Peppy who finds fame in the new age. It’s ‘out with the old, in with the new’ and it brought to mind memories of Die Hard 4.0 of all things: “You’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” And just as Valentin struggles with his pride and fish out of water status, The Artist ultimately proves that silent films and their stars still have a place in the ever-changing world of movie magic.
Dujardin has the look of a genuine silent film star, with an open face that easily conveys a variety of emotions. His smile is dazzling and he uses it often and to great effect. The best thing about silent movies however, is that it’s all in the physicality of the performance. The Artist is aware it’s somewhat anachronistic and thus is able to revel in its silence, with plenty of wink wink, nudge nudge moments that let the audience in on the joke. There’s a light-heartedness to it that few films capture in today’s market. Even the oft-scorned black and white lends the picture a sense of reverie as if a daydream.
Another advantage of the form is that, because there’s no dialogue, it’s not about what is said but about how it’s said. It’s all about the essence and emotion, the ideas and feeling. When we see Valentin drowning his sorrows it resonates because it’s raw emotion and feeling. This leads to some surprisingly powerful sequences in the film’s second half.
I’ll be frank however, for the first part of The Artist I didn’t understand what all the hubbub was about. It was nice – different, which is commendable – but nothing spectacular. But then the film broke it’s silence. It only does this a couple of times but it always does so to striking effect. The first time you hear an actual sound it’s like you’ve been hit by lightning; I sat bolt upright in my seat. It’s a great example of Hazanavicius implementing more modern day techniques in this nonetheless superlative tribute to the silent era of time gone by.