The Artist (2011) – Blu-ray & DVD review
A gimmick? By stripping away the sound, Hazanavicius crystallises that it’s not the technology that makes great cinema, but the people using it
(Michel Hazanavicius, Fr, 2011)
It was famously said of Citizen Kane that it is designed to work like a silent film that just happens to have sound. That’s worth bearing in mind watching The Artist, which is littered with sequences taken from Welles: stony silence at breakfast during an unhappy marriage; a screening room wreathed in cigarette smoke; the hero trashing a room in anger and despair; and a room of hidden trophies lying under tarpaulin. It’s a film that wonders what Citizen Kane would be like if you took away the sound. The answer, in theory, is a silent film but as Michel Hazanavicius knows, really the answer is “a silent film.”
Yes, the delighted response to The Artist has it right. This is an incredibly deft, witty, intoxicating marvel of a movie, made with just the right blend of post-modern panache and “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” nostalgia. Yet, far from being a mere pastiche, this is an incredibly formal film, one whose meaning is indelibly linked to its means of production.
By turning back the clock to a simpler time, The Artist is deeply shocking – a reminder not only of what we’ve lost, but also of what we’ve gained. The film’s opening sequence sets the tone, teaching the audience how to watch a silent film by showing us an audience watching a silent film. On-screen, the intertitles say “Speak!” as matinee idol George Valentin’s latest character is tortured – but he can’t. Meanwhile behind the screen, the cast and crew, who can speak, are ordered to be silent. Expectations are upturned, and we have to adjust to a new – or, rather, old – way of doing things. As the film-within-a-film ends, we wait to hear the applause…or at least get cut to the audience clapping. But Hazanavicius stays on Valentin; we only register the reception from his elated features.
And that’s how the film works, as Hazanavicius experiments with how to show sound visually. Symbols are stripped of cymbalism: a record turning to denote music, fingers in the mouth to suggest a wolf-whistle. Characters can’t shout but have to walk over to physically attract attention. A key set-piece involves a dog trying to explain what’s happened: mime at its purest. Meanwhile, the written word on the intertitles acts as wry Greek chorus, satirising the narrative (“we need to talk”) or offering sly misdirection.
So the subject matter – the coming of sound – is totally appropriate. It scarcely matters that the theme, and to be honest whole chunks of the narrative, are lifted straight from Singin’ In The Rain. Gene Kelly’s classic was a Technicolor musical remembering how things changed. This takes the opposite tack: trying the show the shock of the new from that generation’s eyes. It’s cleverer than nostalgia: it’s surreal and disconcerting, a kind of cinema as time-travel. The film’s most audacious coup is the dream sequence in which Valentin perceives sound – a glass banging on a table, a feather hitting the ground like a bomb – but cannot speak. That must be how it felt to movie stars of the time.
And it gives such uncanny terror to Valentin’s plight that the use of music from Vertigo (a film about one man’s obsessive need to stay in the past) on the soundtrack is entirely appropriate. This is a very modern nightmare: the artist pushed into obsolescence by technology. In traditional art, the maker would only stop because they’d lost something: maybe a limb, or a sense. Here, it’s the addition of a new factor that leaves Valentin looking outdated. This isn’t just a film about sound. It’s about today: celluloid versus digital, print versus blog, the principle of ‘adapt versus die.’
Of course, the other reason Valentin doesn’t speak is because he’s really a Frenchman, Jean Dujardin, who barely spoke a word of English when he made the film. This sort of thing happened in real life, but the historical authenticity is less important than the sense that the closer we get to technical perfection, the fewer doors we leave open for true expression – a lesson to 3D filmmakers everywhere. The glorious thing here is that Hazanavicius, by removing the language barrier, can recreate a Golden Age of Hollywood where only talent mattered. Suddenly, you can have a cast comprising French, Argentinian, American and British; seasoned pros like John Goodman and James Cromwell as well as perky newcomers like the unbelievably lovely Berenice Bejo.
And it is framed and shot with such admirable precision that one can’t help but feel a pang of regret for the loss of the Academy ratio. Widescreen invites directors to fill the frame rather than risk too much empty space; the simplicity and smallness of the boxier silent screen allowed a less cluttered image, in which performance was measured in movement rather than monologues – and that’s what Hazanavicius restores here. It helps that Dujardin and Bejo really look the part, with Dujardin’s muscular grace and Bejo’s long-limbed slapstick imbued with a feel for an age when all that mattered was an instinct for connecting with the audience.