The Artist: A Throwback to Old Hollywood

I’ve thought a lot about silence this week. Yes, silence, the suddenly and seemingly unending lack of sound in a noisy world. Silence is a phenomenon that is both welcome at time and downright frightening at others. A little bit of quiet is great if the kids have been Hell all weekend long. Silence from a partner on a date night, though, is the opposite: most unwelcome and bitterly heartbreaking.

 

I live in the vast Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the home of more than seven million people who all need to get somewhere and make a lot of noise doing it. It’s not an issue. We’re people and we all need cars, trains, buses, planes and whatever else to get to places. We have ears for a reason and that’s to hear. We love noises.

 

But what about when we take that noise away? Then, the silence that confronts us in a few short moments is truly deafening. For most of us, moving from a lifetime of noise to little sound is almost as sudden as jumping into the ocean without holding your breath.

 

There can also be an art to silence though. Take film, for example. There were many a film made prior to the innovation of mass reproduced sound that are great works of art. In fact, one truly silent film made the list of Best Picture winners: Wings, the very first Best Picture winner. There’s something to be said, though, about the impact of silent films on the movies we see today. You must crawl before you can walk, and sometimes, we need reminding of that.

 

Michel Hazanavicius directed 2011’s The Artist, a film that does just that. In a time that sees almost no black and white mainstream films, or even silent ones for that matter, The Artist bucked the trend and even succeeded  all the way to the 84th Academy Award for Best Picture.

 

The most striking thing about The Artist is, of course, that it’s silent and black and white, utilizing only music and very strong performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo to tell its story. Some of you may not like a silent movie, which I totally understand; it’s the lack of talking and the fact that you actually have read the lines. Who needs all that work? But bear with The Artist if you get the chance to watch it.

 

The most striking feature is the silence, of course, but what if you take that part out? What if you take the silence out of the silence? After that happens, then you’re left with a stirring and lovable story of being out of place in a changing world and the amazing power of love, companionship, and resilience. To put it simply: The Artist was one of my favorite movies that I’ve seen in this blog.

 

Now, for the rest of the film.

 

Plot/Writing/Dialogue

As the film is silent and uses cards to literally flash the line up on the screen (albeit fewer cards than older silent films), I’ve decided to combine these first two categories. While I can normally (with some difficulty) differentiate between the plot and the writing (story vs. dialogue) I couldn’t in this film. The screenplay that we see is primarily narrative.

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The film starts in 1927 with George Valentin (Dujardin), a famous silent movie actor at the premier of his latest film. He’s a man on top of the world in 1927, and it’s here, at the height of power and influence when we find him. After the premier, Valentin meets a young fangirl, Peppy Miller (Bejo) when Miller inadvertently runs into him on the sidewalk. The two show off for the cameras. Miller uses that influence to begin her own acting career and, using her good looks and skills on the dance floor, lands her first gig in which she performs with none other than Valentin. The two have an instant connection and begin a short off-screen fling. Miller grabs progressively better and better roles until she is a bona fide star.

 

When “talkies” come about, George ends up on the wrong end of history, becoming cross with the studio bigwig Al Zimmerman (John Goodman) and finding himself out of work. Valentin believes that nobody ever needed to hear his voice to love him before, and they won’t now. But the opposite is true. Valentin is old news, tossed out with yesterday’s milk bottles, whereas Miller’s meteoric rise helps to accelerate the popularity of talking pictures.

 

Incensed at the changing world, Valentin makes his own big budget silent film which fails and bankrupts him. He spirals down into the deep void of depression, his marriage crumbles, his money vanishes and he’s only left with his faithful dog, Jack.

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All the while, Peppy remains George’s friend and it shatters her to watch him spiral out of control. She supports him right under his nose, always on the lookout for his well-being.

 

When my girlfriend Laci and I sat down to watch The Artist, we didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a silent film, but that was about it. From the start, the film draws you in with terrific music, amazing storytelling and two great performances Dujardin and Bejo.

 

What I thought interesting was how few cards with lines there were during the film. The Artist, which was written by Hazanavicius and received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, leaves much up to you. Sometimes entire scenes are exclusively action on the screen with no cards to give you a clue as to what the actors are actually saying. Yet, this is the genius of the film: even though you watch each scene hungrily wanting more details, you still get what’s happening in front of you. 1, 1.

 

Sound

Even if The Artist movie is “silent,” that doesn’t mean it’s without sound. In fact, sound may make a more powerful point late in the film (more on that below). Obviously, the movie is underscored with a terrific score by Ludovic Bource, which won Best Original Score.

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The score is a modern take on the classic grandiose movie scores of the 1930s (see: Gone with the Wind) and the music does the most effective job of setting the mood that I’ve seen in this blog yet. It’s all we’ve got to hear, so I think it would naturally do so. The score shifts so naturally from happy to sad to intense, depending on what happening on screen. Bource’s score is dramatic and overblown, incorporating many elements of jazz, common to the time. 1.

 

Set Design

The Artist was nominated for Best Art Direction and won the Oscar for Best Costume Design. Since the film is black and white and silent, The Artist pays homage to old-style Hollywood in its set design and feel. The movie is obviously shot mostly on a soundstage with flat, boxy sets that were common in the era. However, given today’s modern movie climate of shooting on location or off the studio backlot, this film is ambitious with its set design just because The Artist has the guts to be shot on a soundstage.

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What’s more impressive is the feel of the outdoor shots, of which there are many. Yes, other period films have paid extensive attention to detail when it comes to the outside shots and getting the setting just right. We see this in The Godfather, a film shot in the 1970s, but takes place in the 1940s. For whatever reason (maybe it’s the black and white) The Artist could have fooled me. I had to keep reminding myself that the movie was shot in the 2010s, not the 1920s. And that is a top mark in my book. 1.

 

Cinematography

Receiving a Best Cinematography nomination for The Artist was director of photography Guillaume Schiffman.

 

Again this film was shot in black and white, which of itself is impressive. The Artist is the first 100 percent black and white film to win Best Picture since 1960’s The Apartment. But more than that, it’s the first film since 1953’s From Here to Eternity to win Best Picture to be presented in a 4:3 or 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like the set, this is a tribute to old Hollywood.

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The black and white nature of the film allows for a different creativity while shooting the film. The primary artistic feature of the black and white film is the focus on style, rather than making my eyeballs explode gleefully because of the all the color. Light and shadow, as well as positioning, are very important in black and white films, and The Artist is no slouch here.

 

The best use of this throughout the film is the reliance on reflections and shadows to demonstrate Valentin’s fall from grace. Valentin often sees his own disintegration before his own eyes, leading him further into despair. One particularly powerful scene is late in the film, Valentin reaches rock bottom and starts watching his own films. He stands in front of the projector, staring at his own shadow, when suddenly that shadow, his very own essence, walks away from him, leaving poor Valentin to grapple with the loss of himself. 1.

 

Acting

Boy am I glad to have a film with just two principal actors in it. It makes my job a little easier.

 

That being said, the performances of both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are truly for the ages. A silent film requires a certain gusto of expression coupled with a subtlety that drips with emotion.

 

Dujardin won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of George Valentin. From the beginning, Valentin is a a man who is full of himself, stealing the spotlight from his compatriots on the screen during movie reviews. He pays little attention to the needs of his wife and focuses all his energy on George Valentin.

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He’s rather unlikable at first, but his charm and instant infatuation with Pepper Miller keep us interested in him. When he’s confronted with sound, he fights against it with stubbornness. Talking pictures are the rock, and he’s the hard place, and his pride is stuck in the middle. But that pride is his undoing. He quickly ends up on the wrong side of history and Valentin doesn’t react to it well.

 

The French Dujardin keeps us engaged with Valentin as he crumbles, penny by penny. Nervous breakdowns, anguish, regret, pride, and anger all enter Valentin’s lexicon as he spirals out of control and his life literally goes up in flames. He’s literally another Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s terrific film Sunset Boulevard: a forgotten silent film star who wallows in self pity.  He must confront himself and best his own pride to succeed in life, yet he almost doesn’t.

 

On the other end of the spectrum is Bejo, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the sweet and charismatic Peppy Miller. Taking advantage of all her opportunities, Miller leads a life completely different from Valentin and the careers of the two diverge at precisely the right time. This is unknown when the two first meet.

 

Miller is Valentin’s rock throughout the film, though he doesn’t know it. She supports him, indirectly buying everything from him during an auction of Valentin’s possessions and even watching his doomed movie. While George wallows for years (years!) she clings to a connection that she formed with him during their first ever on-set interaction. Miller is the essence of beauty. She’s genuinely a beautiful person inside and out. She remains the only person who ever truly cares for Valentin, literally saving his life and his career. 1.

 

Directing

Winning Best Director for The Artist was Michel Hazanavicius, his only Best Director win or nomination.

 

First and foremost, Hazanavicius has to be commended for even getting the film produced. It’s a silent, black and white movie in the 21st century. Having any success with that kind of film would have been difficult. But to win Best Picture is almost impossible.

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Like I’ve said before, The Artist tells the story of a man who’s life evaporates before his eyes, and the woman who is always there for him. But, like most other Best Picture winners, the themes, of which there are many in this film, run deeper than just a simple story.

 

The first and most obvious one is the power of friendship and love. Valentin and Miller don’t ever really fall in love during the film, but rather build upon a solid rock of friendship. It truly does conquer all if you let it.

 

But the second, and more important theme, is what the film critiques. George Valentin is a man who doesn’t adapt to change well. He’s old fashioned, loving himself and his way of life and becoming deluded with how much the world loves him. He’s resistant to change, not only in film, but in the rest of the world. Decimated by the failure of his own film and the crash of the stock market in 1929, Valentin only strengthens his resolve and idea that talking pictures are just a fad. They’re not. But he still fails to adapt.

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When faced with new technologies, Valentin retreats and he falls because of it, whereas those like Miller who embrace it, enjoy successes and wealth. But this film isn’t about technology, or the need to embrace it. No, it’s about open-mindedness and acceptance of the world within which you live, rather than closing off a deluded vision of how you think the world should be. The Artist is silent and black and white because Valentin wants it to be. He shuts off all other attempts to change, and he is, in effect, left without a voice, only able to see what’s going on around him, but choosing to not understand it. An industry which gave him a voice without speaking a word, renders him unable to speak when he needs it the most.

 

Valentin’s journey is indicative to those of who fail to understand the broad picture of the world, to understand change and struggle. We as people are the main characters in our own books, of course, but self absorption leads to the universe passing us by. It’s only when Valentin adapts and accepts the world he now lives in, the life he now leads, only then is he able truly understand himself, Peppy, and his place in the world. For all of us, the silence of others is only heard when we allow to hear others to speak. 1.

 

Bonus Points

I’m giving this film a 10. So much artistry at play here and I encourage all of you to watch it. But, I do have to give special recognition to Jack, Valentin’s special and talented Jack Russell Terrier. His real name is Uggie and the furball lived a great life from 2002 to 2015, appearing in several movies and television talk shows.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Notes

The Artist won the 84th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 26, 2012 at the Hollywood and Highland Centre Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out The Descendents, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse for Best Picture. The award was presented by Tom Cruise and accepted by Thomas Langmann, producer. In total, The Artist was nominated for ten awards, winning five. It remains the only French film to win Best Picture, and only one of ten films to win the award having been financed outside the US.

 

Other winners that night included Meryl Streep winning Best Actress for The Iron Lady, Christopher Plummer became the oldest person to win an acting Oscar, winning Best Supporting Actor for Beginners, and Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for The Help. The ceremony was notable as it featured between five and ten Best Picture nominees rather than the traditional five, a policy that continues today. The ceremony was hosted by Billy Crystal.

 

Final Thoughts

Next week, I return to the 1970s with 1976’s The Sting. After that, it’s Rebecca, The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

3 Comments

  1. I haven’t seen this movie but your review intrigued me. I think it would be interesting to watch this one, very different type of movie than I’d normally watch!

    Like

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