The first thing you’ll notice about The Artist is that it’s in black and white; the second thing you’ll notice is that it’s a silent. This might put some people off immediately, but if you’re game for it you’ll be watching a really good film. The characters and story are so involving that it won’t matter that you can’t hear them talk (except that the silence is actually thematically significant).
The Artist of the title is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star just coming off his biggest hit ever: A Russian Affair. The film opens with the ending of said hit. Our hero is being tortured by evil Russians for information. Before we even get into the film proper the ideas of speaking as a means of expression are being introduced. He refuses to speak, of course, but is able to escape with his dog (Uggie), who his both his costar in the film and his pet in real life. In the film he is able to succeed without talking, and so far in the larger film he is also able to do this. George is watching from behind the screen with the producer and costar, where a sign demands “silence behind the screen.” More silence. When the film ends, he goes out to take a bow.
This part is really funny, actually this film was more humorous than I thought it would be the first time I saw it. It seems like he’s going to bring his costar out with him, but he actually brings out his dog (who is so cute, by the way). He has a hard time valuing others, let’s just say that, and that gets him into trouble along the way. Outside the theater, he bumps into a young woman who takes the opportunity to kiss him on the cheek for the cameras. They get into the paper, and the woman, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is spurred on by the confidence this gives her to get a part as an extra in George’s next film, A German Affair. As Kathy says in Singin’ in the Rain: “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”
They start filming the movie, and the stuff that George does with his eyebrows is hilarious. He comes into this dance, all suave and stuff, and it’s just so funny. He then is supposed to dance with Peppy and with each successive take he dances her for longer and longer than he is supposed to. It’s so cute and somehow sad at the same time, especially when they flashback to that moment later in the film. Then disaster strikes: talking pictures. Actually, this is a fun historical fact I learned in film class the other day: when Edison and Dickson first invented the kinetoscope it was actually synced up with a record, so really they had the capability to do talking pictures this whole time! It must not have been cost effective or something. Anyway, the producer (John Goodman) calls George up to his office basically to tell him they don’t need him anymore. They’re bringing in a bunch of new stars, who can talk! Peppy Miller is among them, which kind of hurts George a bit because they had been bonding pretty well. He refuses to work in a talkie anyway, so he goes off and makes his own silent.
His silent doesn’t go too well, but Peppy gets more and more talking roles and becomes a big star. She never forgets George though, and goes to his film’s opening. The stock market crash happens right around when both of their latest films open, and since George’s didn’t do so well he basically becomes broke. He goes into a downward spiral out of control, until he is able to allow Peppy to save him. His pride stops him from this multiple times, and ultimately this is the lesson of the story.
However, the best thing about this film is not the story. The story’s pretty basic, but the way they are able to interject this idea of the ability to talk being equivalent to powerful is interesting. It’s not so involved that it makes the film a chore to watch, though, it’s still very fun and very sad once George’s career starts to fail. After he gets let go, George has this dream where everything is able to make sound except his voice. He can move objects around and they make noise, his footsteps make noise, the girls walking outside laugh, but he still can’t talk. The only thing I wonder about The Artist is why they didn’t have Peppy and everyone else in the talking picture industry start actually speaking when talkies took over. Maybe because they wanted the whole film to be about George and his struggle? If George can’t talk he can’t hear anybody else? That’s probably it, actually (I love when I come to these conclusion by accident as I’m writing a post). This makes sense when you relate it back to the idea of how his pride stops him from accepting Peppy’s help.
I also love the shout-outs to other films that happen here. Obviously, just the main idea of the transfer from silents to talkies is reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, which are both great films that I love. I was totally down with that. The Artist doesn’t really feel like a rip off of either film, though there definitely are similarities. The way I like to think of it is Sunset Boulevard is a really dark story about the transfer, The Artist is in the middle, and Singin’ in the Rain isn’t dark at all. They are all really very good and it would be fun to watch them all together some time (I should do that!). Also there is a scene that really reminds me of The Lost Weekend, which has a lot to do with the feelings of failure that George has. He’s drinking at a bar and he pours his drink out of his glass, and that really reminded me of the viscous cycle created by the rings left by the whisky glass on the bar in The Lost Weekend. Just as Don is trapped by alcohol, George is trapped by his inability to accept help, and both are illustrated by the circle of alcohol on the bar. Also, The Artist features music from my favorite Hitchcock film, Vertigo, towards the end. I can’t really think of any thematic ties that would motivate them to do this, but the sound of the music itself works so well that it’s not out of place or anything.
Jean Dujardin won best actor for his performance as George Valentin, and he did a fantastic job without talking. I think it’s kind of ironic that his silent performance was able to convey so much when his character comes to believe that because he can’t be in talking pictures he is powerless. Dujardin sure isn’t, that’s for sure. It’s also great that you get to see Dujardin play George, and then you also get to see George play whatever heros in the various silent films he stars in. There’s a big difference. Dujardin is a way better actor than George is; when George gets on screen he totally hams it up and is hilarious. Another interesting part about this film is how Dujardin’s performance sort of proves the opposite of what George ends up thinking. When talkies first develop, he scorns them by saying that people don’t want to hear him talk, they just want to see him. Dujardin proves that seeing him is enough to get us to identify with him. I was literally behind him the second I saw that huge grin on his face.
If you ever want to watch a silent film, I suggest going with this one. It’s not the first silent film I saw, and I’m not sure if it’s the best, but it’s certainly not the worst (I’ve only seen a few, so it’s hard for me to really compare). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is really good, but the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur… not so much. I’m just saying that The Artist is easier for modern audiences to handle than an actual silent film; the picture is clearer and the acting is also more modern. The Artist was nominated for ten Oscars for 2011: best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress, editing, cinematography, costumes, original score, art direction, and original screenplay, and won half of them: best picture, best director, best actor, costumes, and original score. Not bad for a black and white silent film this day in age.
Long story short: 4/4 stars