Those new to silent films and the impact of talkies should first watch Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Boulevard. Nowhere else are the scars of discarded actors yearning for bygone influence and attention as well wrought. In deviation from this classic, director Michel Hazanavicius lightens the sorrow and dysfunction in The Artist. Expressive faces and effusive gestures disarm viewers and stop the downward crescendo. Speech is absent. Non-diegetic music acts as the soundtrack and supplements emotions created in mimed frames. Isolated dialogue is revealed by intertitles, and loyalists to film history will recognize camerawork reenacting Charlie Chaplin and director Tod Browning (The Unknown (1927)) scenes.
Yes, this is a silent film.
Hazanavicius frames several scenes in an ode to nascent film days that seem fresh for most audiences. He has an advantage in employing this method, which befuddles jaded critics and drives award nominations. The director toys with layers of reality by beginning the film projecting a movie that the lead George Valentin (acted by Jean Dujardin, name play on Rudolph Valentino?) stars as he paces behind the screen to a packed stage theater. Mise-en-scène comes to mind. George is a prized studio asset reveling in his triumphs and awaiting the applause from audience members wearing their evening garb of regal dresses and tuxedos. He is powerless to control what the film reels show yet anticipation in outside acceptance is still evident. The victory lap unto the stage with his talented dog establishes the great fall. A man celebrated and adored has just experienced the highlight of his rise.
Cue the Greek Tragedy.
Riding the euphoria of his fans, a young woman in attempts to retrieve her purse awkwardly bumps into George. Motionless for a long 3 seconds, George pierces the standstill with a smile, and she poses gleefully by his side for the photographers. Variety runs a front page clamoring for this new female face. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, wife to director Michel Hazanavicius) capitalizes on this mania and successfully lands a minor dancing role on a new film starring George Valentin. Much of silent film set-ups involve mistaken identities or eventual reveals. Peppy and George have a dance-off while a wall partition blocks sight of their respective competitor. These moments are sweet and precious. Hazanavicius endears the characters to contemporary audiences in these scenes with notions that the nostalgic past was indeed purer.
Wisely, the plot does not break moral codes, particular in regards to marriage. Despite Doris’s (Penelope Ann Miller) mean-spirited doodling of George’s magazine face, he never strays, and Peppy’s re-appearances only hint at what could be. One deadly sin averted, George blunders with pride. Studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) introduces George to an innovation in cinema – sound. George laughs at the demonstration insisting that his fans don’t care if he speaks or not. Despairingly, his dismissal of talkies coincides with the Great Depression. Days before the economic collapse, he independently developed a silent film in the midst of talkie fever to abysmal financial results. His devoted chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) refuses to abandon penniless, now divorced George.
As George’s star has faded and crashed, Peppy lands more weighty roles until she becomes the new sensation. She follows George’s struggles covertly and lends assistance when opportunities exist. She lavishes in popularity and expensive furs while he pawns his items for booze funds. Without sound, facial expressions are vital to witness and feel his decline. Hearing the words is not necessary, one has entered their world.
A fantastic scene occurs right after George’s rejection of talkies. Sitting at his vanity, he sets his drink on the table except the glass’s echo can be heard. It startles real audience members and him. His dog barks, hinges on the door squeak, and ladies’ laughter reverberates in the studio lot. He listens to all this and cannot hear his own voice or screams. An ominous and beautiful dream.
Suspense is intrepidly achieved by Hazanavicious near the end. Then he in jolly fashion ends the film with a wink and sense of rebirth for the former star. Bejo and Dujardin bewitch viewers with their tender performances, so Oscar nominations are not surprising. It also helped to have an older style made new again. If anything, the director unearthed visual tropes missing from cinema for decades that invites a rental or two of select Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. For this effect, I bestow separate applause.