The first moment I saw/heard of The Artist, I had an overwhelming desire to see it. As a lover of silent films and classic movies, it was a no-brainer. I have written before, encouraging the viewing of silent films, for them to be given a chance in our age of technology, computer generated special effects, and, quite honestly, too many overproduced, mediocre movies.
The notion of someone wanting to make a silent movie in the year 2012 first strikes as a wince inducing idea. How can an age of so much technological advancement and in-your-face film producers capture the charm, subtlety, and genuine charisma of a silent movie? Most attempts at making a movie from a specific era, not just about the era, but from the era, usually backfire. They often come across as campy or mocking while trying to capture the essence of the film era and the nuances of an acting style.
The Artist succeeded in avoiding this type of tragic misfortune. It came across, for me, as sincere, hitting all the right notes of the silent era’s expressiveness, and showing a great understanding of the world of film from that time. This isn’t only done through the actors’ performances, but with the lighting and how the scenes are staged.
As I sat in the theatre, waiting for the film to begin, I noticed I must have been the only person in the theatre under the age of 50. I believe that speaks more to the fact that it was a Thursday matinee more than about the film itself. Those annoying previews blared out at me, causing me to flinch several times (why in the world does it have to be that loud in a theatre?), but finally it was time for the feature presentation.
As I nibbled on my Junior Mints (okay, and Milk Duds, both snuck in, not purchased) I was swept away into the world of The Artist. The musical accompaniment, not blaring sound effects and voices, floated gently out to me, put me in a calm and reflective trance, my eyes glued to the screen. I was quickly struck by Jean Dujardin’s screen presence, and admittedly, found myself having a huge crush on George Valentin (Dujardin’s character). He was the epitome of actors of the era, charismatic, suave, light-hearted, and engaging.
The references to other silent films were prevalent and acutely apparent to those familiar with silent film, without being obnoxious or condescending. Even movies, actors, and filmmakers beyond the silent era were given a nod. Charlie Chaplin and City Lights (1931), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Fritz Lang, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow. . .too many to name! Most notably The Artist will remind viewers of Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
One of my favorite scenes, is when Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) goes into George’s dressing room secretly. As she is admiring is personal space and the items he uses, she notices his tuxedo jacket hanging up with top hat. She slowly approaches it, slips her arm into one sleeve, playing out a tender and affectionate moment with an envisioned George. The scene is so well played by Bejo, along with the music, it swallows one whole into the depths of a delicate yet enchanting and evocative place. It is brilliant. If anyone has seen Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927), it is reminiscent of her scene of cradling herself in the arms of her lover’s jacket.
Sound is incorporated into the movie, not as a cheat, but as an integral part of the story. It accompanies a dream sequence of George’s, more like a nightmare for him, where his dynasty of stardom and film success is threatened by the “talkies” that are on the horizon. The first moment he sits his glass down and it clunks on the desk, giving us our first bit of sound beyond music, it is affecting and a bit disconcerting, not just for George, but for us, as the viewer. Those few sounds jar us out of this silent utopia of facial expressions, body language, unspoken feelings, and depicted atmosphere.
The story continues with George’s descent and Peppy’s rise to fame. Although the story is quite predictable and common, it is so enjoyable and seducing and well done that it doesn’t even matter. We still want to see what happens next and accompany George and Peppy on their journey. When you complete that journey with them, you’re treated to that final scene, where George and Peppy dance. This scene is so delightful and fun it leaves you feeling happy and up beat. I wanted to dance my way out of the movie theatre as the credits began to roll.
As a female who is enamored of looks of different eras, often sporting pin curls and finger waves and owning several cloches, I was fawning over the clothes and hair. I was coveting those dresses, and was being inspired to break out my gloves (non-winter ones). It made me want to top off an outfit with one of my cloches, and had me yearning for more options and access to kitten heels. The men in tuxedo jackets and top hats, with their limited, but well-kept facial hair. Those 1920s/30s cars, big, bulky, ornate and rumbling across the screen, all sublime and droll inducing for the vintage lover.
With all of that being said, this movie is not for everyone. Unfortunately, there are people who hear or see “black and white movie” and refuse to even give it their time. Add to that it’s silent, and you incite that grimaced “ick” face. It would be nice if everyone would give it a chance and go into it with an open mind and venture outside of their norm of what a movie is. Today’s movie audience is accustomed to fast-paced stories or dialogue, explosions, sex, and blatant violence.
The Artist stands up, meekly, trying to remind us that movies weren’t always like this, that there was a different way of making and enjoying a movie. And though it is “archaic” by today’s standard, it is not lost, nor should it be forgotten. It was the beginning era of movies, it brought stage influenced acting into the film business, and commenced the evolution of acting and movie making. It is an art still to be enjoyed and a refreshing escape from the noisy and aggressive films of today. It beckons us to succumb to the endearing characters and stories that were once portrayed with not much more than a movement of head or hand, a contorted face, a look embedded in speaking eyes, and the mood amplified by a musical score. Something simplified could grab you and demand your attention with such poignancy.