11 Jan

Programme Note: The Artist

The-artist-web_thumb

Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Even before its first reel begins, a screening of The Artist at the Glasgow Film Theatre evokes an older fashion of filmmaking. Once advertisements and trailers have been dispatched, the theatre’s curtains move in towards one another, closing off the screen’s outer edges and confining the available space to the once-dominant 1.33:1 ratio. Such boxy dimensions were an industry standard in Hollywood’s early days, until widescreen formats such as Cinemascope re-configured screen proportions and established a new, more spacious norm, and so the contemporary use of such a comparatively ‘square’ ratio is immediately indicative of The Artist’s nostalgic ambitions. 

The story opens with the premiere of silent screen idol George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) latest cinematic spectacular. We join the film-within-a-film near its climax, with Valentin’s character bound and tortured, but remaining heroically resistant to interrogation. ‘I won’t talk!’ he declares via the first of the film’s inter-titles, underscoring the character’s valour, whilst announcing The Artist’s chief novelty – the absence of sync sound for the majority of its duration. As a black and white, silent production, The Artist is a period piece in both content and style – a description that could equally be applied to director Michel Hazanavicius’s previous two features, the spy spoofs OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006), and its sequel Lost in Rio (2009), set in the fifties and sixties respectively. ‘Usually, when you do a period movie, you just recreate what you are shooting’ says Hazanavicius, ‘[but] you don’t recreate the way you shoot it’.[1] In The Artist, as in his OSS films, he endeavours to do both, albeit with modern technology on hand to simplify the task.

With his film a roaring success, George exits the theatre to meet his fans. In the bustle, he is jostled against aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), and together they pose for photographs, landing Peppy on the cover of industry paper Variety. Peppy’s sudden press exposure kick-starts her career, but as she begins her rise to the A-list via bit-parts and supporting roles (a rise charted in montage form, her name ascending the credits with each successive picture, from misspelled, bottom-of-the-page ‘beauty girl’ to principal cast status), George finds his silent acting style threatened by the arrival of ‘talking pictures’. Even from this brief synopsis, echoes of Singin’ in the Rain (the transition to talkies and its impact on silent cinema stars) and A Star is Born (one actor’s rise to fame set against the declining popularity of another) are obvious, but while The Artist’s narrative may be simple and familiar, it’s the execution that has had critics effusively praising its charms.

As his career flounders, George sinks his fortune into an ill-fated directorial venture, labelling ‘talkies’ a soon-to-pass fad, and declaring himself an artisan, in contrast to other celluloid ‘puppets’.  Hazanavicius is evidently a silent-cinema enthusiast, as evidenced by the affection with which The Artist recreates the period’s iconography and cinematic grammar, not to mention the film’s numerous allusions to the works of Pickford, Fairbanks and Garbo, amongst others. But The Artist complicates its protagonist’s equation of silence with some form of ‘purer’ artistry by characterising George’s resistance as a combination of stubborn pride and debilitating fear. In an imaginative nightmare sequence, George’s dreams are infiltrated by deafening sound effects, with the dull clunk of a glass placed on a dressing table building into the deafening crash of a feather landing on tarmac – even his faithful Jack Russell (played by Palm Dog-winner Uggie) finds his voice, barking away as his owner’s mute panic escalates. Thus, the aforementioned interrogation scene becomes, retrospectively, a metaphor for George’s tribulations, as his refusal to respond to the public demand for talking pictures leaves him destitute and alone. 

While George’s recalcitrant attitude can be taken simply as arrogance, the final scene suggests another possible motivation for his obstinate behaviour, one relating to the popular conception of silent cinema as ‘Esperanto for the eyes’, as Kevin Brownlaw puts it.[2] ‘When people say, ‘We lost something with the arrival of the talkies,’ that’s what they are talking about’ suggests Hazanavicius. ‘We lost the utopia of a universal language.’[3] This perceived loss seems to influence The Artist’s conclusion: with his career at rock-bottom, George is thrown a life-line – a co-starring role in Peppy’s next picture. ‘No one wants to hear me speak’ he protests, but a solution is at hand. The film is reconfigured as a musical, and The Artist closes with an exuberant dance routine (foreshadowed earlier in the couple’s relationship when they trade tap steps from either side of a partition). To refer back to the aforementioned dream sequence, the dance finale sees George finally embrace sync sound (with the rhythmic tapping of their feet integral to the routine’s effect), without having to speak on-camera – replacing one utopian ‘universal language’ with another. When their dance concludes, the couple hold their stance, and the score is replaced by the sound of their exhausted breathing, followed by the film’s first line of audible dialogue: ‘Cut!’ The director asks for ‘just one more take’, and we hear George’s voice for the first, and only, time. In interview, Hazanavicius has noted that with silent film you ‘bring your own dialogue’, but also ‘your own accents’,[4] so George’s heavily-accented response seems to reveal an important psychological motivation for his steadfast resistance to sound’s advancing hegemony in Hollywood. As Bryony Dixon notes, the oft-repeated myth in which actors with ‘disagreeable voices’ were forcibly made redundant by the arrival of sound is an easily-refutable one,[5] but The Artist’s final gag works regardless – after all, in the movies, historical accuracy is no match for entertainment.

Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and Journalist
January 2012

 


[1] Sheila Roberts, ‘Director Michel Hazanavicius The Artist Interview’ Collider, accessed 9/01 at http://collider.com/director-michel-hazanavicius-the-artist-interview/126248/

[2] Kevin Brownlaw, Hollywood, the Pioneers (The University of Michigan: Michigan, 1979) p. 7

[3] Alistair Harkness, ‘Interview: Michel Hazanavicius, film director’ The Scotsman, accessed 09/01 at http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/film/interview_michel_hazanavicius_film_director_1_2019264

[4] James Bell, ‘The Sound of Silents’ Sight and Sound, January 2012, p. 33

[5] Bryony Dixon, ‘Life After Sound’ Sight and Sound, January 2012, p. 34

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