It is rare that classic film buffs talk very much about recent films. When we do, they are usually movies that try to portray individuals and situations from film history (My Week with Marilyn) or remakes of classic films (True Grit). And more often than not, we classic film buffs have very little good to say about such films (the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit) seems to be an exception. That having been said, last year there was a film that had classic film buffs talking that neither sought to portray actual events from film history nor revisit a classic film. That movie was The Artist (2011). What had classic films buffs talking about the film is the fact that it was made as if it was a silent film made during the transition to sound (roughly from 1927 to 1929). What is more remarkable, is that The Artist received largely positive buzz from classic film buffs and even won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This past Sunday I finally had the opportunity to see what everyone had been talking about (sadly, when it was in theatres the nearest one showing it was 30 miles away).
The Artist was largely the creation of writer and director Michel Hazanavicius, who had already delved into film history with his previous two films. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio were parodies of the Sixties spy films in general and the popular "OSS 117" movies of the Fifties and Sixties in specific. It should then not have been a surprise that for his next film Mr. Hazanavicius wanted to make a silent film that would tribute to Hollywood as it was in the late Twenties and Thirties.
The Artist does indeed pay tribute to the Hollywood of old, not just the Hollywood of the Silent Era, but Hollywood during its Golden Age well. The film is set in the years from 1927 to 1931, the same era as Singin' in the Rain, and like Singin' in the Rain the transition to sound is fundamental to its plot. At the same time the plot of The Artist resembles the various versions of A Star is Born, centring on the relationship between an older star of Silent films (George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin) and a younger star of the new Talkies (Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo). The Artist evokes other classic films as well. A scene from one of George Valentin's films not only evokes Metropolis (1927), but the serials of the Thirties and Forties as well. A clip from Douglas Fairbanks' classic The Mark of Zorro (1920) appears in the film. And, of course, there is the notorious use of a portion of the Vertigo soundtrack (more on that later). Even star Jean Dujardin evokes Hollywood's past, as he looks like a dead ringer for Douglas Fairbanks in his prime.
Of course, it is one thing to play homage to films of the past, it is quite another as to whether The Artist could capture their spirit. In my humble opinion, The Artist succeeds admirably. Indeed, Michel Hazanavicius considered details that many directors may well have overlooked. The film was shot in 1.33:1 screen ratio that was in common use during the Silent Era. While The Artist was shot in colour, it was converted into black and white. Despite this fact, Guillaume Schiffman's cinematography captures the look of the old Silents quite well. The film was even shot at 22 frames per second rather than today's standard 24 frames per second to duplicate the look of a silent movie. Even Ludovic Bource's score sounds like something that could have been written for a silent film.
Here I must point out that The Artist does not simply replicate silent films in general, but it replicates a specific era of silent film: the Silents of the late Twenties before the advent of sound. Michel Hazanavicius did an admirable job of capturing the look and feel of a late Silent. Not only do the title cards look like those of a silent movie from the late Twenties, but they are also somewhat infrequent (by that point in film history directors had come to rely less on title cards to get their point across). The acting style of the performers is more naturalistic, much like those of the late Silent stars, with none of the exaggerated expressions and gestures of earlier Silent films. Even the plot resembles the Silents of old. It is a melodrama with many touches of comedy, not only allowing it to feel like a silent film, but making it likely that modern audiences would enjoy it as well.
While over all The Artist does do a good job of capturing the feel of a silent film, I must admit that in my humble opinion it could have done a little bit better. Some of the dialogue seemed a bit too modern to my ears. As an example, while the word "loser" has existed in the English language for centuries, I am not sure that the phrase "You loser!" would become common until the Sixties or Seventies. I also thought that the presence of Rose Murphy's version of "Pennies from Heaven" was slightly out of place in the film. In the days of silent movies I do not believe most theatres would have had a vocalist on hand to sing a song during the movie! I must also say that I thought that Bérénice Bejo looked a bit too modern to be a movie star in the era of the early Talkies. While I thought Miss Bejo did a good job as Peppy Miller, I thought The Artist could have been even more convincing as a silent film with an actress who looked more like she belonged to the era. While there were exceptions (Joan Crawford, for one), it seems to me that many of the most popular actresses of the era (Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, and so on) had a similar look. They all had heart shaped faces with cupid bow lips. It was a look that remained fashionable into the early Thirties and the early Talkies--indeed, it is the look of animated star Betty Boop (whose appearance was based on singer and actress Helen Kane). While Miss Bejo did do a good job as Peppy Miller, then, I think The Artist may have felt even more like a late, silent film with an actress with a Clara Bow/Helen Kane look in the role.
There is one thing I thought would detract from the film that did not, the controversial use of a portion of the Vertigo score (specifically "Love Scene (Scène d'amour)") in the soundtrack. I must say that I disagreed with Kim Novak that it was wrong for "Love Scene (Scène d'amour)" from Vertigo to have been used in The Artist. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios regularly reused music (just how many times were portions of Max Steiner's King Kong score reused?), so that it did not bother me that Michel Hazanavicius reused part of another film score. What bothered me before seeing The Artist was whether Bernard Hermann's classic work would not be too modern for The Artist, that it would not spoil the illusion that I was watching a film from the late Twenties. Fortunately, it turned out that it was "Love Scene (Scène d'amour)" that was used and not another part of the Vertigo score. "Love Scene (Scène d'amour)" blends in so well with the rest of The Artist soundtrack that while you might consciously recognise it, you won't be thinking, "This would never be used in part of the score for a silent movie).
By now I imagine many of you might be asking, "Well, you think The Artist does a good job of capturing the feel of silent films, but is it any good?" To that I must answer that it is a very enjoyable film. Never mind that it does a great job of capturing the look and feel of silent films, The Artist is a well written film that is very entertaining and quite enjoyable. Mr. Hazanavicius' script goes beyond merely capturing the feel of silent films, but tells a story that will keep one riveted to the screen until the very end. He has created a believable plot with believable characters with a good deal happening to maintain one's interest. For film buff the script also contains a number of film references in addition to those previously mentioned.
The Artist also benefits from a great cast. Not only does Jean Dujardin look like Douglas Fairbanks, but he is very convincing as silent film star George Valentin. Mr. Dujardin's Valentin is simultaneously a carefree actor with a bit of an ego who at the same time has certain principles. Jean Dujardin is so convincing as George Valentin that one could almost believe Valentin actually existed. James Cromwell gives a very touching performance as Valentin's loyal valet, Clifton, who stands by Valentin through thick and thin. John Goodman does a great turn as the boisterous head of Kinograph Studios, Al Zimmer. While I do think the role of Peppy Miler could have been better cast, Bérénice Bejo does well in the part. Miss Bejo endows Miss Miler with a charm and grace that one could almost believe she was a silent star. Of course, here I must mention my favourite performer in the film, Uggie as The Dog. Uggie is quite impressive. He is not merely a dog who can do tricks, but one who can really act. Uggie is every bit as expressive and emotive as the human actors.
The Artist is not a perfect recreation of silent films. There are some anachronisms in language and other areas. That having been said, it captures the feel of the Silents so well that only the pickiest of silent film connoisseurs would not be able to overlook these anachronisms. Even then, I suspect even the pickiest of silent film connoisseurs would be too caught up in the plot, the performances, and the sheer effervescence of The Artist. It is so entertaining and enjoyable that even the average modern film goer, accustomed to colour photography and sound, will find himself or herself taking delight in the film. Over all The Artist is an entertaining and enjoyable movie that captures the spirit of the Silents quite well.
Here I must say that if one enjoyed The Artist and particularly if he or she also loves the original silent films, he or she might wish to watch Mel Brooks' classic parody of the form Silent Movie (1976) and the more recent The Call of Cthulhu (2005), a film produced as if Lovecraft's classic short story had been adapted to film in the Twenties!