Back to the Roots: Recalling the Silent Age in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist

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George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo)

The Hollywood industry has had a soft spot for nostalgia and its own past as of late. This has been an ongoing trend for a while now, as the example of Martin Scorsese’s 2004 movie The Aviator about the notorious multibillionaire, bon vivant, and film pioneer Howard Hughes demonstrates. But the latest awards season is probably the culmination of this movement. Two motion pictures by New York mahatmas – Hugo, Scorsese’s 3D adventure for children, and Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris – both won multiple prizes by trying to recall the glory of former times. None of them, however, has been more successful than a rather peculiar project for the industry today: a black-and-white silent film from France by director Michel Hazanavicius.

At its heart, The Artist is two things: a sentimental fable whose elements have been borrowed from the Hollywood classics Singin’ In The Rain and A Star Is Born and a film about the first drastic shift in the movie industry, the transition from the silent era to talkies that has been made the topic of several works as diverse as the aforementioned Singin’ In The Rain or a whodunit for children called The Three Investigators and the Secret of Terror Castle. The material is therefore not exactly original but, from today’s point of view, the approach is. Apart from Mel Brooks in his 1976 project Silent Movie, no other director has dared to dabble with a film that does not contain any spoken words.

The plot of The Artist is a rather simple one. Hollywood, 1927: The advent of the talkies. Dancer and aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) runs into George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling silent movie hero, outside a premiere. Because of his gracious reaction, she plants a kiss on his cheek as they are surrounded by reporters. The photo finds its way onto the first pages of the big newspapers, with headlines asking ‘Who’s that girl?’ In the aftermath, Peppy is asked to audition for some new films. While her parts grow with each new movie and she rises in the industry, Valentin’s strict refusal to shoot talkies makes him fade into obscurity.

On first glance, The Artist is a fairly ambitious project, especially for a director and leading man that hardly anyone outside of France knew before the film. Contemporary audiences are simply not used to watching silent movies anymore, probably with the exception of a selected few that admire the early works of such creative heads as Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, or Sergei Eisenstein. In this regard, one must admire the courage of Hazanavicius and Dujardin, and with The Artist, they certainly have succeeded in making a silent movie that appeals to a lot of people rather than following another recent trend, 3D.

It is understandable why many viewers like the film. For starters, the acting by Bejo and Dujardin, paired with the performances of such Hollywood veterans as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, and the way Hazanavicius directs them through the story are convincing, although the cute little dog that is Valentin’s most loyal companion in the movie arguably outshines all of them. Yet where The Artist really excels is set and costume design. It manages to recapture the magic that seems to have surrounded Hollywood in the early stages of the studio system. Everything looks as one would imagine vintage late 1920s and early 1930s Southern California.

Ultimately, however, The Artist comes across as a bit shallow, and sadly so. The problem is not that its tale has already been narrated several times before. Good stories can be told time and again, as fairytales have proven for centuries. But the film only depicts Miller’s rise to fame intercut with Valentin’s tragic fall from grace and nothing much else. In a 100-minute feature, there are no subplots to speak of. Neither are there any references to works from the silent era that a movie like The Artist literally lends itself to. Pixar’s animated film for children, The Incredibles, for instance, is able to incorporate a good number of such allusions for the versed audiences without taking anything away from the kids or other viewers who are unable to connect the dots. There were certainly hopes from movie geeks that The Artist would also be able to do so, but they have been utterly disappointed.

All in all, Hazanavicius’s film is a family-friendly feature that has attracted and will continue to appeal to large audiences. It definitely has its bright spots. Yet there are also some downsides to it, maybe also owed to the gigantic expectations created by the Weinstein Company, its American distributor, in order to promote its Oscar bid. One of them is the music that borrows a great deal from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It remains a mystery why composer Ludovic Bource received an Academy Award for his soundtrack for The Artist.

The Oscar for Best Costume Design is definitely justified, but it is debatable whether Dujardin playing Valentin, while a fine performance in its own right, should have gotten the award over Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Demián Bichir, or if Hazanavicius’s directorial work was really better than that of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and Alexander Payne. One might also feel inclined to question The Artist winning the grand prize at the Oscars over eight other movies. Then again, it might also be a sign of this season’s ‘cream of the crop’ simply being one of the weaker bunches.