Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius
Written By: Michel Hazanavicius
Produced By: Thomas Langmann
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, Snowy the Dog
Edited By: Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
Music By: Ludovic Bource
Distributed By: The Weinstein Company
Budget: $12 million
Runtime: 100 minutes
I’ll preface with two things. First, there’s only so much I can enjoy a silent film. There are some very good silent films, but I am still very much a modern moviegoer and hence sound (beyond music) means a lot when it comes to keeping my attention. Second, The Artist is probably going to win Best Director and Best Picture, if other awards are any indication. Does it deserve these awards? It depends on how you think recognitions should be given. The Artist is an extremely well made film that is a beautiful homage to silent films and the transition to sound. It’s a touching tale. At the same time, it is an “award-winning film.” The Weinstein’s knew it would be nominated for anything and everything and that played a role in their distributing it. The Artist is an academic film more than entertaining. An art film, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but I’ll preface all the same.
The Artist tells the story of silent film celebrity George Valentine, a figure built around his ability to smile and raise his eyebrows. He is at the top of his game and career, but for reasons only hinted at he scoffs at sound cinema when his producer, John Goodman, announces their studio is going full sound. He attempts to set up his own silent production studio, but the people want sound and he doesn’t think he can give it. It’s downhill from here as his fame and riches (thanks to the stock market crash) are stripped away, a story starkly contrasted to that of Peppy Miller, a cute, sweet California girl with a, you got it, peppy voice perfect for this new era in filmmaking.
One might ask why Valentine is so against sound film. You accept it within the frameworks of the story, but the question is still worth investigating because this film is meant as an homage to the hard collision between these two eras of technology. This hesitation to sound is well heard of in film history: Charles Chaplin (to an extent), among others. I would, in a way, liken The Artist to Hugo in its wonderful ability to pay homage to its influences. Hugo studies the magic of silent cinema while The Artist studies the industrial difficulty of transferring that magic into the sound era. Not so much from a marketing standpoint; this film proves the people wanted sound. It’s a difficulty in livelihood and what filmmakers deem worthy of the filmic art. A hot button issue even within contemporary cinema.
As a silent film released in 2011, The Artist has plenty of obstacles to overcome. The film is almost completely a silent film save for two scenes. It even uses inter-titles to progress the narrative with key bits of dialogue and exposition. The exceptions are incredibly fitting: the first time Valentine is introduced to sound by way of a vivid, audibly, dream sequence, and in the film’s final scene where, as expected, sound is embraced fully. The use of inter-titles is perfect in comparison to early sound films. So much so that there are points where one realizes advantages in storytelling silent cinema as over sound. It is an interesting merging of silent film aesthetics within contemporary film practices, however, because the manner of progression is very much that of a 2011 film. It’s shot in 1.33:1 full frame format but in a much higher definition codec, and the angles, manner of editing, and overall composition is influenced by over a hundred years of film history. This detracts from nothing as the film is still very intelligently a “silent film,” but it’s interesting all the same.
The power of homage is shown best in the acting of…well…all involved. Jean Dujardin does a fantastic time representing both the talent and ego, both personal and artistic, of someone whose career is built around his ability to animate on screen. He rarely opens his mouth unless talking to a producer, and we find out this is because he has a very thick French accent. Peppy Miller is also fantastic as a mirror image of Valentine except in sound format. It’s great. And then there is Snowy the Dog, who is just lovable. He’s not just a cute dog in the movie but quite relevant to the plot, and in a way Snowy comes to represent the adoration that modern moviegoers have for silent film stars.
The Artist is almost exactly this year’s The King’s Speech. It’s a great film (well, I liked King’s Speech more) that is well made, well acted, well shot, so on. It’s released in December just in time to be nominated for the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Oscars, and everything else, and it ends up winning most of them. Does it deserve these awards? Yes, it certainly deserves Best Director and Best Film simply based on how beautifully it pays respect to everything these award shows are meant to represent. At the same time, Hugo also accomplishes many of these things and was, in my opinion, more entertaining, but debates about how awards should be handed out would take many another post.
If you are in any way interested in film history or silent films, you will love The Artist. It is not just an homage to the 1920s and the transition into sound. It’s also about the ability of art to transition with advances in technology. The masses will always want the newest, greatest, coolest thing. It’s the reason moving pictures were so popular when first released at the turn of the century. It’s the reason video games are so popular, or 3D film, or comics. This is why it’s important for those who claim themselves artists to not become stagnant within a shortsighted mindset. Art evolves just as everything else does. So, too, must the Artist.