With a total of 10 nominations for this year’s upcoming Academy Awards, The Artist has largely proven to be a hit amongst both audiences and critics. Taking its inspiration from Hollywood’s silent era, the film’s fictional narrative focuses on George (Jean Dujardin), an actor who falls from popularity with the advent of the ‘talkies’. His loss of stardom takes on an added poignancy alongside the presence of Peppy (Bérénice Bejo), a young, glamorous actress who becomes a rising star with the coming of sound. But it’s not only the story of the film and its setting that are rooted in the past, The Artist is in itself a (mostly) silent film and uses various recognisable tropes of the time period in addition to its lack of dialogue.
Filmed on colour stock and converted into monochrome in post-production, the clarity of the images are as good as any contemporary film, with the black-and-white cinematography helping to recreate the glamour and romance associated with old Hollywood. Use of archaic screen transitions (such as the iris wipe, a common feature at the end of cartoons like the Looney Tunes), occasional intertitles and an old-fashioned, box-y aspect ratio also contribute to the period feel of the piece. While some viewers may find it difficult to sit through a film without speech, the plot is relatively simplistic and the performances are exaggerated just enough to aid the viewers’ understanding of events. A brilliant score accompanies the film and helps to prevent the mood from lagging, yet in some places it is the complete absence of sound that proves to be the most effective. The film’s introduction places us in the environment of a late-1920s cinema, with a silent film playing accompanied by live musicians. This film-within-the-film then ends, but rather than going straight into the next section of the soundtrack, director Hazanavicius chooses to provide us with a complete absence of sound accompanying shots of the crowd breaking into rapturous applause. This technique is used again at the film’s climax and is greatly effective in defying the audience’s expectations. Music is typically used in film-making during moments of heightened emotion or tension in order to signal to the audience how they ought to be feeling at that moment. Removing sound altogether implies that the emotion of the scene is powerful enough to be capable of standing alone.
Similarly to fellow best picture nominee Midnight in Paris, The Artist features a protagonist who seems unable to move on from the past into the present. The film also plays on the feelings of sentimentality and nostalgia that many of us feel for a bygone age. While the silent era is romanticized, the film also plays tribute to many other past eras of cinema, referencing works that in the context of the film’s early-1930s setting haven’t even been made yet. One scene towards the end of the film borrows music from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Vertigo (a decision greatly condemned by one of the film’s stars, Kim Novak) to accompany a shot depicting George looking into a shop window. This references a similar moment in Vertigo where Scotty, equally unable to let go of the past, is seen gazing into the window of a florist’s shop. While The Artist seems in many ways like an ode to great cinema of the past, these references are subtle enough and the film light-hearted enough to still appeal to viewers who don’t share Hazanavicius’ great passion and knowledge of film.
In many ways the film’s greatest appeal is in managing to recreate the silent era in a sufficiently sentimental way to keep the nostalgic among us satisfied. While this film has been hugely successful, I have to wonder whether silent cinema would remain as popular if contemporary directors left, right and centre started using this technique once again. We tend to romanticize the past, deeming the present to be unsatisfactory in comparison to ‘the good old days’. If silent film-making was to become a commonplace technique once more we would probably just find ourselves in a constant state of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of meaningless action films about giant robots that can turn into cars. In reality, no period of cinema has been without its fair share of bad films, but we tend to forget about this when looking back through a pair of rose-tinted glasses at it all.
The Artist‘s sentimentality comes close to being cheesy, but manages to remain more of an homage to the genre than a crude pastiche. If you have the patience to sit through a film without dialogue (and I feel very sorry for anybody who lacks the attention span to do that), this film is very rewarding. You can’t help but leave the cinema with a huge smile on your face.