I had the good sense and fortune to watch The Artist, a film that netted star Jean Dujardin Best Actor at Cannes 2011 and which has six Golden Globe nominations going for it, the most of any film for 2011 (not that, you know, Golden Globes mean anything).
The artist is about silent film star George Valentin, his relationship with up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller, and the decline of silent films and the advent of “talkies”. Valentin, like perhaps any professional scared of a new medium of art (like Ebert’s fear of video games or the fear of 3D films), insists that these talkies are just a fad and that silent film is here to stay. Obviously, he’s proven wrong.
The movie is, itself, mostly silent. There is a musical score, like a silent picture would have, and aside from a few (very, very few) lines and sound effects at key places, we’re left only to read lips and read the occasional card on screen. Our focus however isn’t entirely on why Valentin won’t star in a talkie, but why Valentin refuses to talk. And that is exactly how he phrases it. He “talks” with his fellow stars, but the audio is always on mute: the silent-film era audiences don’t hear him talk, and neither do we. Valentin spends his career talking to the audience using gestures and intertitles. Talking, we’re meant to learn, is as much about being heard as talking itself. If no one hears you talk, you aren’t talking.
And I think, to some extent, that is the problem that silent-film stars who, like Valentin, refused to adapt to talkies faced. It’s what happens to new directors, new artists, new actors. You can write the best novel, paint the best portrait, or sing the best song in the world, but if no one reads it, sees it, or hears it, it is nothing. When movies are all about being seen, well, everyone sees Valentin. When movies are about hearing and seeing, and Valentin refuses to be heard, he loses that.
Something that I really appreciated, and I think writer and director Michel Hazanavicius deserves a ton of credit for this, is that we are made to feel pity for Valentin, but never meant to hate him or think he’s an idiot. We’re in a position of dramatic irony: we know that Valentin’s refusal to talk is going to spell the end of his career. We know that silent-films die in the era of talkies. While people who say(/said) things like “computers will never catch on” or “the internet is just a fad”: we treat these people as rubes and with scorn. It’s funny for us, here in the digital era, to hear people say that. But throughout The Artist, I only found myself feeling sorry and sad for Valentin. And that’s how, I think, the film manages to maintain its humanity. It’s a movie about a man’s futile struggle against technology (and ultimately himself), but doesn’t end with his complete ruin or with us hating him. And while some have tried to argue that making a silent-film about silent-films is gimmicky, it isn’t. Hazanavicius manages to convey everything that we need with a few intertitles, gesture, music, and a couple lines of dialogue (star Dujardin as Valentin has but a single line in the film, and only two words; his co-star Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller has none). And in that regard, it’s absolutely brilliant. Show, don’t tell, is almost always a good rule of thumb, and Hazanavicius spends almost the entire film showing. Maybe audio killed the silent film (and maybe video killed the radio star), but we’re meant to remember that an artist is always an artist.
If you can find a theatre still playing it, go watch it. It’s awesome. Oh yeah, noted heroes John Goodman and James Cromwell also star and are magnificent. If you were on the fence before, that should seal the deal.
Anecdotes — even more spoilers ahead:
I had the displeasure of sitting beside some clowns during the film. While my girlfriend was between me and the worst of them, we still had to endure their whispering throughout the film. There is a moment where Valentin is seconds away from eating his gun. The audio track has gone silent and, one row back, two morons are whispering.
After a pause “BANG!!!” appears as an intertitle. Some boobs who were likely still alive during the silent-film era read the card out loud, for the illiterates in the audience. It cuts to Miller, who has crashed her car outside of Valentin’s home. The obvious conclusion is that the “BANG!!!” refers specifically to her crashing her car, and not Valentin eating lead. Alas, these fools were still surprised.
What shocked me the most, the absolute most, was at the very end when Valentin utters his only line: “With pleasure.” Jean Dujardin, if you haven’t guessed it, is French. George Valentin is not a very American sounding name. Valentin utters his line in a French accent: when he does so, the tools beside me gasp in surprise, one even says “huh?”. Yes. A man named George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, has a French accent. Deal with it.
If you go to the movies, please shut the hell up. Especially if it is a silent-film. I didn’t pay money to hear your bullshit.