By Cecilia Prefontaine
In the 2011 semi-silent film, The Artist, French director Michel Hazanavicius grabs ahold of a critical moment in early-cinema history and entangles his audience in the lives of two fictional performers. I didn’t know what I was signing up for when I pressed play, but I was delighted nearly two hours later after following the account of an actor infatuated with silent film see the world move on to talkies, despite his resistance. As the film opens in 1927, George Valentin is thriving in his career, seemingly on top of the world. After meeting an infatuating young woman named Peppy Miller, he brings her into his world of movies and guides her to become a sequined sweetheart adored by audiences and directors in Hollywood. What began as a flirtation soon becomes a period of struggle for Valentin; his marriage suffers and he is faced with the impending popularization of talking pictures that will challenge his career and identity.
First, Hazanavicius brings the audience into the world of silent film by shooting in black and white and cutting voices for the better part of the one-hour-and-forty-minute runtime. Instead of trying to recreate films of the 1920s, the style is a nod at the early cinema without exhausting audiences used to modern programming. The style of the film is derived from traditional silent films, featuring few, if any special effects (like CGI or computer-generated imagery) as well as practical sets and backgrounds to align with the time period. Unlike early films, The Artist includes numerous close-up shots that make the desires and emotions of each character feel personal. I suppose increased focus on each person is needed when spoken dialogue is lacking to underscore the significance of facial expression and physical movement.
To further supplement the story, an intricate soundtrack separates the contents of each film shown in The Artist and sets the tone for the interactions had between Valentin and his boss, his quirky dog, Peppy, and his fans. The music, more of the main player than a last-minute thought, makes it easy to read between the lines, especially for someone who’s never seen a silent film. At one point, a prolonged scene of silence stands out in contrast to the rest of the film, drawing upon the seriousness and weight of that moment.
Hazanavicius utilized newspaper headlines as a tool for storytelling to illustrate time passing and turning points in The Artist. When major shifts in the plot occurred, overlays of printed reports articulated how the rest of the world reacted. Initially, a paper reading “Kinograph Studios Stop All Silent Productions to Work Exclusively on Talkies” introduced the news that one of Valentin’s previous studios was moving on from silent film. It became clear that by October 1929, Valentin was fighting against the status quo as he continued in silent films; headlines read: “I’m not a puppet, I’m an artist!” and “It’s my money! The Price of Freedom,” in a defensive manner. Repetitively, these headlines beat down Valentin, divulging the ongoing success of Peppy in talkies and eventually news of the stock market crash. Moreover, they set him apart from the rest of the world and isolated him to his lowest points.
In addition to carefully selected cinematic techniques, Valentin’s relationships symbolize fascinating dynamics in the film. At first, Valentin guides Peppy to the movie industry, but a couple of years later, when she has progressed in the movie world and has signed with Kinograph Studios, Valentin is struggling and she comes to his rescue. While Peppy’s career skyrockets because of sound, Valentin’s crumbles. Moreover, Valentin is silent to his wife, which indicated to me he couldn’t make time to love her during the peak of his fame and that when he began to grapple with sound pictures, he chose silence in his marriage. Alternatively, to his audiences, he facades as a thrilling, happy man, yet to his boss, Valentin displays the same stubbornness and bluntness his wife knew. How Valentin portrays himself, all without words, reveals he is stuck with the rest of the world moving ahead without him.
Overall, The Artist stylistically combines components of silent films with up-close shots and modern elements of cinematography (including camera lenses, angles, and movements) that make reading characters more manageable for silent film rookies. It’s odd to think about who would want to make a silent film when today, it seems easier to use dialogue. The French-produced film is one that appeals to viewers who are nostalgic of the past, and Hazanavicius successfully retells a segment of history by integrating old film’s inner workings for modern audiences, too. Partnered with a fantastical soundtrack, narrative storytelling through news headlines, and transformative character relationships, the skillful acting of the cast can successfully grab the attention of even the most distracted movie-watchers.