When was the last time you saw a silent film? They really aren’t very common any more. Generally when a movie opts to be silent or be shot in black and white rather than color it is for artistic reason, not necessity. The Artist (2011) was one such movie that showcased its story the way it was done before “talkies” were developed.
Outside a movie premiere, enthusiastic fan Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) literally bumps into the swashbuckling hero of the silent film, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). The star reacts graciously and Peppy plants a kiss on his check as they are surrounded by photographers. The headlines demand: “Who’s That Girl?” and Peppy is inspired to audition for a dancing bit-part at the studio. However as Peppy slowly rises to fame through the industry, the introduction of talking-pictures turns Valentin’s World upside-down.
I think The Artist drew a lot of inspiration from Singing in the Rain. Both are about an egocentric actor and a rising star dancer who are caught up in the whirlwind brought about by talking pictures. It’s a story about actors who make films, and all the celebrity worship and glamour that goes along with it. The Artist goes in a markedly different direction than Singing in the Rain did. The Great Depression hits, Valentin loses everything, and his last hope for retaining any money is box office success of his latest silent movie which is outshined by Peppy’s latest talking picture. In spite of a bleak downward spiral, the movie remains humorous, cheerful, and pleasant; much like the films back in the 1920’s. For all purposes, you would think that it actually was an old silent film if not for the appearance of several big name actors including John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell.
The Artist is a silent film, and it is conscious of that. But The Artist has fun with the concept and kind of jokes with the viewer about it. The movie relies on some excellent actors to portray feelings, emotions, and ideas without allowing us to hear dialogue. There are intertitles used throughout to get complex dialogue that can’t be articulated through facial expressions and gestures. Intertitles are what you see when the camera cuts away from the action for a few seconds to show you something like a cue card with the words the character is speaking. There’s also a scene shortly after Valentin learns about talking pictures in which he has a dream sequence where there are actual sound effects, but he cannot make a sound. One would not think this would be such a novelty, but by this time we are so accustomed to the silent film, that when Valentin sets his glass down on the table we’re taken aback as we hear a clinking sound. The movie genuinely has fun with the fact that it’s a silent film and makes it fun to watch.
Dujardin plays his role remarkably well. He’s absolutely stunning in his delivery. He is so expressive that he seems like a natural for a silent film. He acts subtle in some scenes and over the top in others without seeming like a ham. And like the Gene Kelly character in Singing in the Rain, he’s got a smile that dazzles no one more than himself. He’s such a good actor that he even plays some melodramatic scenes while avoiding pitfalls that would make him look utterly foolish.
I think what makes The Artist so endearing is the attention to detail and the style. A lot of camera work was used to mimic the types of shots used in old silent films. Because the movie is not in color, it drew more attention to the creative lighting techniques. The lack of color actually made it more interesting to watch. Every single shot was absolutely gorgeous to behold.
The Artist is a very good film. It’s creative and innovative while maintaining the qualities that make a film feel like a classic. It’s well acted, well written, and is visually stunning. The story is clean enough that the whole family could watch it. I could see the fact that it is a silent film would dissuade some viewers. This isn’t the kind of movie we see anymore and its unfamiliarity might leave a bad taste in the mouths of some viewers. However, I strongly urge you to see this movie and try not to focus on the fact that it’s a silent film. The story is good and the style is excellent. There is a reason it won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Have you seen any silent films? What did you think of them? Of the old silent films I've seen, my favorite is Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Comment below and tell me about the silent films you've seen.