The Artist

A Dramatic Comedy

Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius

The question with which I opened my Hugo post applies even more to Michel Hazanavicius’ new silent film: Did I–and other cinephiles–love The Artist because it is a very good motion picture, or because the story, setting, and style are so close to any cinephile’s heart? I think I loved it for both reasons.

Here, for what may be the first time in decades, is a silent movie. Not just a dialog-free or dialog-lite feature, like Wall-E or Angels and Idiots, but a real silent movie, with intertitles in place of dialog, and a soundtrack that’s almost entirely music (sound effects are extremely rare and well-chosen). It’s even in black and white, and presented in the old 1.33×1 aspect ratio. And what’s it about? The death of silent movies.

The story manages to combine elements of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, an odd combination that Hazanavicius pulls off amazingly well. You really have no idea if this picture is going to have a wiz-bang happy ending or finish in tragedy, and that results in an unusual level of suspense.

I suspect that Hazanavicius thought consciously about those pictures when he wrote his screenplay. He also filled The Artist with plenty of other cinematic tributes. Douglas Fairbanks’ Mark of Zorro gets referenced. There are elements of John Gilbert’s late career. The dancing reminded me of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And the dog from The Thin Man series (or at least a near-perfect duplicate) plays a major role.

Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a movie star who looks like Gene Kelly theartistwearing Douglas Fairbanks’ mustache. When we first meet him, at the premiere of his latest blockbuster (like I said, Singin’ in the Rain), he’s at the top of his game. He loves stepping out onto the stage after the picture to entertain his audience, dancing for them and even bringing his dog out to do tricks. It’s 1927–the year The Jazz Singer came out. You know he’s heading for a fall.

Sound destroyed many movie stars, but it also created many others. As George’s fame fades, Peppy Miller’s career skyrockets. Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) loves George, and while he likes her enough, and enjoys dancing and flirting with her, he doesn’t really take her seriously. In one scene, Bejo performs an exceptionally sweet, funny, and Chaplinesque routine with George’s coat that speaks volumes about her romantic fantasy.

Silence is at the core of The Artist. The very first intertitle, spoken by George’s character in a movie within the movie, has him exclaim that “I will not talk!” Soon afterwards, a large sign backstage instructs people to be “Silent.” And a cute gag early on tells us not to expect even sound effects. Hazanavicius tells most of the story visually, as any good silent film director would, and uses intertitles–most of which are dialog, not narration–sparingly. Ludovic Bource’s musical score does its job, and only becomes noticeable when the story requires it.

Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that also help to illuminate the characters. George starts playing with his extremely well-trained dog when he needs to deal with people. His unhappy wife (Penelope Ann Miller) spends her time drawing bad teeth and devil horns on photos of her husband. And John Goodman, as the studio head, huffs and puffs and looks frustrated when faced with the reality that his stars can sometimes overrule him.

As befits a silent film, where accents are never an issue, the international cast all play Americans. This is a French film, shot in Hollywood for the logical reason that that was the most realistic location to use. This may be the first time that happened.

A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film not based on a comic book is a hard sell in today’s market, and I don’t know if The Artist will find the audience it deserves. Catch it before it disappears.