One of the most significant developments in the history of cinema was the introduction of sound. Once the technology was ready and the public developed a taste for the talkies, cinema was transformed to an extent that had a much greater effect than the widespread use of colour or the advent of digital technologies. Sound changed the ways films were made, introduced new approaches to film style and, as depicted in films such as Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952), supposedly ended the careers of many of the original movie stars. Although, as argued by Bryony Dixon in the January 2012 edition of Sight and Sound, the myth of sound bringing about the demise of silent film actors has been greatly embellished and most of the claims about the widespread destruction of careers are simply inaccurate. Nevertheless, this mythology is once again brought to life in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist where a Rudolph Valentino/Douglas Fairbanks-style actor named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) finds himself fading from the limelight once silent cinema goes out of vogue.
The most striking thing about The Artist is how it lovingly and playfully pays homage to pre-sound cinema by being a silent film. The film opens in a cinema in 1927 where an audience is watching a film titled A Russian Affair featuring George in the role of the hero being tortured. On the cinema screen his dialogue flashes up as intertitles: ‘I won’t talk, I won’t say a word!’ Just before we see the real George waiting behind the cinema screen getting ready to greet the audience, the camera pans past a warning sign that reads, ‘Please be silent behind the screen’. Hazanavicius continues playing with the audience during these opening moments, as while A Russian Affair the film within the film is silent, it is still not clear that The Artist is as well. None of the characters are talking and the orchestral music accompanying the film could be coming from the actual orchestra seen on screen. It is not until A Russian Affair ends and the audience in the cinema burst into unheard applause that Hazanavicius makes it clear that we are watching a 21st century silent film.
The Artist doesn’t quite contain the same magical reverence for early cinema as Hugo does, but it similarly pays an affectionate tribute for the cinema of the past while remaining modern. Not only is it about a silent film star and made without sound, The Artist is shot in the old 4:3 ratio and is in black-and-white. However, the editing and cinematography are otherwise contemporary, instead of mimicking 1920s cinema. The Artist contains far more camera movement and edits than most films from the era, not to mention a much sharper depth-of-field and many more close-ups than were usually seen in such films, if seen at all. The acting style is also different for while the actors in The Artists are suitably expressive, especially with their faces, they don’t use the same theatrical arm gestures that were commonplace before sound made such performances seem over-the-top. All this would be a bad thing if The Artist were purporting to be a faithful reconstruction of what a classic silent film may have looked like, but it is not. (Rolf de Heer’s 2007 film Dr. Plonk is a better example of a contemporary film more directly adopting the aesthetics of early cinema). The scenes within The Artist of the fictitious films made during the era, such as A Russian Affair, do contain all the familiar stylistic characteristics, demonstrating that Hazanavicius is more than aware of the conventions, but has chosen not to follow them throughout The Artist.
Hazanavicius’s decision to embrace some aspects of pre-sound cinema and not others suggests that The Artist is both a fond look back at the unique beauty of earlier cinema while embracing the exciting potential of new technology. Sound does feature in The Artist first in a sequence that represents it as threatening for George (yet a wonderful scene for those of us watching) and then in a scene that represents sound’s future. This is similar to the way Scorsese made Hugo as a tribute to early cinema while using the latest advancements in 3D technology. The narrative of The Artist also suggests the dual nostalgia/progressive theme, for not only is the film about George’s downward spiral, but it is also about the rise to success of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who benefits from the transition to sound. In a key moment early in the film Peppy meets George on a staircase as she is going up and he is going down, to provide a pleasingly simple metaphor for how their stories are going to develop.
What is ultimately so pleasing about The Artist is how much the film expresses an all-encompassing love of cinema in all its guises. Central to George’s story and Peppy’s story is that they help each other at pivotal points when the other needs it most, suggesting a harmony between different styles and eras. There is also an assortment of what may or may not be references to other classic films littered through The Artist. Peppy’s routine with George’s coat looks like something straight out of a Charlie Chaplin film while Malcolm McDowell’s cameo as The Butler looks distinctively like WC Fields (and incidentally, both Chaplin and Fields successfully made the transition into sound). A major revelation George has late in the film contains faint echoes of the revelation Cary Grant’s character experiences in An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), a cross-section view of the studio offices seems like a deliberate nod to the famous boarding house scene in The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961) and a piece of Bernard Herrmann’s music from Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is used in an emotional sequence late in the film. The frequent shots where the actors are reflected in mirrors could also possibly be a tip of the hat to Hugo director Martin Scorsese, who is similarly fond of mirror shots.
In interviews Hazanavicius has listed several of his influences and not surprisingly many of them – including Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch – successfully worked during the silent and sound era. The Artist ultimately undermines the myth of the demise of the silent stars in the way it represents the advantages that sound would deliver. The end result could be easy to dismiss as a novelty, but to do so would not give credit to how skilfully Hazanavicius has woven together a variety of cinematic styles from different eras to make a silent film that is easily accessible to a contemporary audience. Not too many other feel-good films possess the craftsmanship and passion for cinema that is found within The Artist.