Silent movies are infectious. Once you see one, you can’t help but see more. I was told that on the first day of one of my film courses, and I have to say that it’s not exactly inaccurate. There’s something special — magical, even — about them. And since so few have survived to this day, the ones that you can go see are generally the good, or at least very interesting ones. Those are ones that people cared about, and therefore got most of the preservation effort. If you seek out a silent movie today, you’re going to be in for a treat.
The Artist, is a mostly successful attempt to capture the magic of the silent era of Hollywood. The film was either shot in or cropped to fit the Academy aspect ratio (4:3), it’s all in black and white, and the dialogue is delivered to us through intertitles — pop ups which take up the whole screen and act as subtitles, except that nothing happening on-screen can distract you from reading them. All you hear is the score, which, at the time, would have been played live by a band, as it wasn’t technically possible to attach sound to the film strip.
This initially seems like a gimmick without a cause. Surely, there’s a reason that we now watch films in widescreen, in color, and with sound. What makes what The Artist attempts to do work? Well, the narrative factors in. It takes place over the span of a few years, beginning in 1927 and progressing to the point in time when silent movies weren’t being produced anymore. It’s about the downfall of the silent movie era, and being made as a silent movie allows it to make its point more strongly. At least, that’s the intention I gleamed from it.
The film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the most successful silent film star there is. He’s kind of silly, but charming and likable, which is about all that’s necessary. While posing for pictures outside of the premier of one of his films, a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), bumps into him. Instead of getting upset, he plays it off as a joke, and the two pose for pictures. Peppy is now a star, all because of this one act.
The two eventually become amiable with one another, and a romance is born. This is, however, a romantic comedy, so they have to be torn apart by something. That conflict arises in the form of the sound era. George cannot act in sound movies, while Peppy becomes a star. This is how most of the rest of the film works. George has to attempt to deal or overcome this issue, while Peppy becomes the star that he used to be. And, as a romantic comedy, you can probably guess the basic outline that it’ll follow after this point.
The only thing missing (or, perhaps, present) that keeps The Artist from feeling like a genuine 20s silent movie is that it doesn’t have any missing frames. It’s all here, and no effort on the part of historians and preservationists had to be expended in order for us to see it in all its glory. Apart from this, from the grand style of the actors, the feel of the sets, and the way it was created, it could have come right out of a vault. Oh, and the green screening is better in this, but that should go unnoticed.
If The Artist accomplishes anything, I hope that it’s to get more of the general audience interested in silent cinema. There are some really good films here, and while they won’t have many (or any) stars that you’ll recognize, that doesn’t make them any less engaging. If you watch and enjoy The Artist, you’ll likely want to seek out some of these earlier films. The vast majority of them either had no copyright, or it has run out, meaning you can enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.
There will be a certain portion of the audience that will simply not be able to enjoy The Artist. I’m not sure who these people are, but I’m certain they’ll exist. The magic of silent cinema isn’t for everyone, and even for a film as accessible as this one is, with its likable cast and simple story, some people just won’t like it. If you hate black and white, or don’t want to read a scarce amount of dialogue, you probably won’t like The Artist, and as such probably shouldn’t even attempt a viewing. There is a cute and funny dog, though, so if an animal can help you overcome those disdains, by all means, you should seek out this film.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo have to act differently from anything they’ve previously done. Even if you don’t know who they are — their American filmographies are … limited, at best — you have to think about the changes an actor has to make when they cannot communicate to the audience with words. Body language and facial expression becomes far more important. To that end, the pair does a fantastic job, and are two incredibly charismatic people, even if we don’t get to hear them speak.
The Artist is an approachable and easy to watch silent movie, one where the gimmick serves to aid the story and the actors are so charming and charismatic that it is almost impossible to turn away. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’re not completely opposed to the idea of a black and white, silent film, you should definitely give it a watch. I hope that it encourages you to seek out many other silent films, as infectious as they can be.