The Artist begins with an intertexual nod to our hero’s predicament. We see a silent film shown in a grand movie house. The scene unfolds as the villain tortures the hero with electrocution commanding him to “SPEAK!” through intertitles. George Valentin, dynamically portrayed by Jean Dujardin, refuses to speak quite literally. He won’t give up his secrets to the villain, and he cannot accept the change in Hollywood from silent to sound cinema “talkies.” Written, directed, and edited by Michael Hazanavicus, the film follows Valentin on an almost fatale trajectory and traces his decline from successful star to forgotten beggar due to his pride, hubris and inability to accept change.
I am instantly reminded of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Crossland’s The Jazz Singer(1927), and all things Chaplin as The Artist begins. The references to early Classical Hollywood Cinema are endless. The high key lighting, intertitles, and mickey-mousing effects are artfully and temporally incorporated into the film. The extreme close-ups and over dramatized facial movements are all reminiscent of the late silent period of Hollywood cinema. Historically, many silent film actors experienced difficulty switching to sound, and their public often had a hard time accepting their new “voice.” For example, an actor’s voice might not match with their projected silent screen persona. Valentin is unwilling to conform to the change as young actors and actresses easily embrace sound.
From the beginning we see Valentin as cocky and fame hungry. An early shot shows Valentin in the foreground dwarfed by his own monumental image on the screen – he is bigger than life. As the actor du jour, girls swoon in his path and one such girl is Peppy Miller played by Bernice Bejo, the real hero of the film. Her tenacious attitude skyrockets her to fame, but throughout her rise she constantly tries to help Valentin as he becomes increasingly obsolete.
The interactions between Peppy and Valentin are tender and show an immediate attraction that they cannot act on. Alone in his dressing room, Peppy slips her hand into his coat, miming an embrace. Valentin is married, but takes Peppy under his wing and encourages her to act. An actual silent film star from the 1930s, Penelope Ann Miller, plays Valentin’s wife Doris. The demise of their marriage starts over the breakfast table, an overt homage to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). They grow increasingly distant as she seethes over coffee and takes her pen to his screen bills giving him black teeth and devil horns.
The film only disappoints in its predictability. The plot unfolds, and we expectedly see Peppy become the star and Valentin fall. He physically begins to resemble The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin’s signature character. His wife leaves him, he squanders his money on a failing silent movie, and he auctions off his possessions to pay for his drinking and smoking. All Valentin has left is his dog, another hero of the story. Ever the cinephile, Hazanavicus echoes the Italian neorealist film Umberto D. (De Sica, 1952) that also follows the story of a disillusioned old man and his dog.
Hazanavicus’ integration of sound into the film marks a change for Valentin as he starts to doubt his place in Hollywood, and he begins to dream in sound. The sound editing is ingenious; we hear the clink of the glass on the table, the dog barking, and all the other diagetic sounds of his dressing room. And then in a surreal moment, a feather falls to the ground making a “boom” noise. These small surreal moments are scattered throughout the film and bring an innovative edge to a redone silent classic.
The Oscar nods are well deserved.
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