Silent Light
By Julien Allen

The Artist
Dir. Michel Hazanavicius, France, The Weinstein Company

One of the most celebrated works of the great French cartoonist SempĂ© depicts a man who sees a lady fall over in the street and cannot contain his laughter, just as a large funeral cortĂšge passes by. The grieving mourners are horrified by his behavior, so he takes refuge in a movie theater, where a Chaplin film is playing. As the entire theater rocks with laughter at the sight of Chaplin’s tramp falling in the street, the man sits quietly and weeps.

The French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard once said in a television interview that no matter how many times he had watched the musical numbers of Singin’ in the Rain, he couldn’t sit through them without feeling his heart pounding in his chest.

What is revealed by these stories of SempĂ© and Baudrillard, and is so beautifully documented by Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, is France’s love affair with American cinema, in all its contrariness, its jealous aspirationalism, and in its belief in the transcendence of the “moment,” be it Chaplin’s own dancing bread rolls, the heartbreaking gesture of loyalty of von Stroheim’s Max in Sunset Boulevard, or Charles Foster Kane’s descent into madness—all of which and many more are strongly brought to mind, without being directly referenced, when watching The Artist.

The film has the temerity to introduce what ought by any objective standard to constitute a monumental gimmick (it’s a silent film produced in all material respects as films were shot in the silent era—but it’s about sound . . . and sound films), and it spends its 100 minutes rigorously defending its right to exist as an entertainment in its own right. Not a reference-packed homage, not a stylistic exercise, nor a clever piece of installation art, but a real movie (yes, pretty much like they used to make them). This desire to please, despite the obvious drawbacks to modern audiences, is manifested most clearly in its obsessive attention to detail, but also in its almost total refusal to update the silent form or even to attempt to make its story any more relevant to today. The story will feel familiar, no matter which version(s) of A Star Is Born you have seen. Silent film star and matinĂ©e idol Georges Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is an overnight victim of the advent of talkies in 1927, replaced as the face of the moment by the young ingĂ©nue-turned-diva Peppy Miller (BĂ©rĂ©nice BĂ©jo), who secretly holds a candle for Valentin. John Goodman is bewilderingly good as the head of the fictional studio (Kinograph) who has to let Valentin down—while simultaneously signing Miller up.

The recreation of the structure, pacing, and visual delights and imperfections of silent films is nigh on flawless: certain movements of characters appear artificially quicker; the intertitles frequently don’t match the words being said on screen, and are drafted as they would have been then (e.g. the use of the phrase "new meat" to describe the new stars of talkies), while some snatches of dialogue don’t warrant intertitles at all, as the audience is relied upon to imagine what is being said; the stationary camera lingers just a moment too long on the leading lady each time she is captured in medium shot—something Keaton regularly used to do; the transitions during a series of ‘takes’ of a film-within-the-film are done by way of a slight burn . . . and so on. There are so many such examples, all of which combine to produce a wholly infectious sense of passionate reverence toward silent cinema, which pleads strongly in the film’s favor in the face of understandable accusations of superficiality or plagiarism. In truth The Artist does cheat like crazy (borrowing plot points and visual tropes from famous talkies to recreate a silent film seems particularly naughty; the score borrows Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo for the film’s climax), but such transgressions are lost in its irresistible blaze of ambition and enthusiasm—and its compelling desire to impart this enthusiasm to us. In fact The Artist is no more or less original, or simplistic, than some of the films of the era it emulates, it is merely out of its chosen time—and therefore both artistically and commercially courageous. (More so still if you count the decision to feature a performing dog. The canine evolves from a sight gag into a crucial character, sharing with its master a scene memorable for its representation of one of the great calamities of cinema: the nitrate fire—wherein Valentin’s plight is all too literally intertwined with that of his work. Even if you hate dogs in films, it’s a fair bet you won’t hate this one.)

Paradoxically for a film centered on the attitude that the early studios were preoccupied with stardom, The Artist stars two complete unknowns. The physical attributes of Jean Dujardin, until now a star of relatively broad, character-based French comedies (including Hazanavicius’s own pre-Bond OSS 117 spoofs, as well as the dumb surfing film Brice de Nice), seem tailor made for the film’s period and central conceit. Valentin doesn’t actually resemble any one actor from Hollywood’s golden age, but recalls many—most obviously Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (footage from The Mark of Zorro is featured with a masked Dujardin interposed seamlessly into the action), but also Gene Kelly, whether flashing a smile, capering around on a stage, or filming a swashbuckler in the style of The Three Musketeers. Where Dujardin really excels is in the “quiet” scenes of introspection depicting his character’s downfall—his stony face, watching one of his flops from the back of the theater vividly contrasts his charming stock expressions as the starry hoofer at the top of his game. It is as good a silent performance as has been seen in the cinema for . . . well, at least 80 years. French-Argentine actress BĂ©jo (who was also Dujardin’s co-star in the OSS films) has quite the opposite effect—looking almost completely out of place, as highlighted by a mocked up poster of the "stars that talk" where she appears alongside lovingly recreated beauties of the age, all of whom appear authentic. This could be jarring, save that she represents change—and one imagines that, with her startlingly different looks, BĂ©jo could plausibly have succeeded in Hollywood at that time (think Josephine Baker).

The main appeal of The Artist is nonetheless likely to lie, beyond the central romance, in its striking visual motifs, delivered with a welcome lightness of touch—many of them deliberately alluding to classic films without stretching the allusion into outright theft. His opportunity to be this visually playful comes from the predominant focus on the cardinal theme: the absence—then the arrival—of sound, which differentiates (by default) The Artist from any other silent film. Without sound, one can only guess what one “ought” to be hearing from the expressions of the actors, as is underlined in the first sequence where Valentin, standing behind the movie screen, listens for the crowd’s reaction at the end of one of his pictures—we hear (of course) absolute silence, a flash of tension, then his face bursts into a triumphant smile as he (not we) can hear the rapturous applause, to which Hazanavicius visually cuts a second or so later. As an announcement of a concept, it is as skilful and potent as the crane shot at the outset of Judgment at Nuremberg where the camera moves beyond the glass of the translator’s booth just as Maximilian Schell slips seamlessly from German into English. Hazanavicius’s almost incomparable eye for period detail was already evident in the OSS 117 films (whose production design trumped their scripts a thousand times over) and he even allows himself one or two very brief moments of actual sound (notably in a nightmare sequence where Valentin is mute but all surrounding noises are horrifyingly audible, culminating in a feather hitting the ground with an almighty bang), which work as a friendly wink to the audience but somehow seem to betray the rigor and constancy of the experiment.

Of course such an experiment, while it may feel as much at times, is not unique. Tarantino has for some time been emulating genres (most spectacularly with his anime/Chang Cheh/spaghetti-western mash-up Kill Bill Part 1 and to a lesser extent with Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds). And just last year, Sylvain Chomet offered us his silent animated The Illusionist, presenting a comparable reverence to the quiet world of Jacques Tati. But what differentiates The Artist as a cinematic event is the wholehearted way in which it celebrates its self-imposed formal limitations, so that the real homage to Hollywood exists through the way it sets for itself the challenge and rises so convincingly to it, rather than the sheer weight of familiar moments from Hollywood’s golden age it submits to pastiche.

It is one thing to deftly observe the minutest details of an entire period of filmmaking, another thing entirely to recreate them so skilfully—but an obvious question cannot be ducked, one whose answer is bound to polarize critics: why? This simplest of stories has been told before, and we have access to silent films whose makers overcame such limitations rather than chose them, so to what end was this stylistic triumph created? Pure nostalgic indulgence? Perhaps, but we can see something more in Valentin’s Chaplinesque refusal to turn his back on silent cinema when faced with what he perceived to be the foolish contrivance of sound: a gentle, impeccably judged cry of defiance, a plea for studios and audiences to recognize that cinema does not need to obsessively covet the next marketable form of technological progress in order to survive. It reminds us that the simplest of images, bathed in silence, has the capacity to be instinctively, viscerally appealing, and can penetrate more deeply into a viewer’s experience than any noisy, 3D motion-capture gizmo tearing out of the screen. It’s a peaceful protest that is bound to attract numerous sympathizers, at least until the curtain comes down.