As often is the case after the Golden Globes are awarded, viewers flocked to see this year’s winner for Best Picture the week after it was awarded to The Artist. Many of those viewers angrily demanded their money back within minutes of the show’s beginning. The reason? The Artist is a silent movie. But don’t let that stop you. It truly is one of the best films of the year, precisely because it is a silent film. The Artist is a stunning paean to the golden age of filmmaking, brilliantly filmed and perfectly acted.
The technology necessary to record sound was available to filmmakers from the very beginning; after all, Edison invented the phonograph before he invented the motion-picture camera. What these early filmmakers lacked was the ability to synchronize the sound with the action. Consequently, movies remained silent, substituting music to complement the action and enhance the emotion portrayed on the screen. In New York, full orchestras provided that music in ornate theaters for audiences of more than 5,000 people decked out in evening dress. Small town theaters employed organists to play the soundtrack for viewers in everyday apparel.
Actors used body language, facial expressions, and outright pantomime to communicate conflict and exposition. Obviously, complex story lines heavy with dialogue were close to impossible. Emotion and physical comedy dominated.
The Artist is a silent movie whose story is set in 1927-32, when the stock market wasn’t the only thing that crashed. Silent films also came tumbling down as the problem with synchronization was resolved and talkies took over. Like the marvelous Gene Kelley-Debbie Reynolds-Donald O’Connor musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), set in the same era, The Artist follows the careers of a handsome silent film star and a bubbly young ingénue whom he has discovered – in this case George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and the aptly named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George is the quintessential ’30s film star with his pencil thin mustache and dazzling smile. Dujardin earned a well-deserved Golden Globe for the role. But Valentin staunchly refuses to make the transition to talkies.
Without the dialogue and complex story line that characterize modern filmmaking, director Hazavanicius invites the audience to focus instead on the rich artistry of early filmmaking – the evocative lighting, the use of shadows and reflections, the camera angles, the elegant costumes, and the stylized sets, among other features. In an homage to the physical comedy of early films, Peppy engages in a delightful schtick with a coat rack and a man’s jacket. Even the film’s opening credits mimic the cast of characters familiar in the opening credits of early black-and-white movies.
Silent films are often parodied for their actors’ broad pantomime and “mugging” for the camera, but Hazavanicius deftly contradicts this broad generalization with the emotional range portrayed by his actors’ facial expressions and body language. Yes, there was some serious over-acting in early films, but The Artist reminds us that there was some astounding subtlety and depth as well. This film has comedy, romance, pathos, suspense, and even a surprise ending. The soundtrack is splendid, and even includes a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock – a long section of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack from Vertigo at the emotional climax of the film.
The Artist really is a silent movie; with two very short but very important exceptions, the only sound you will hear is music. So be prepared, but don’t let this fact keep you away from the film. It is, as its title suggests, a work of art.
The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius, director; Warner Brothers, 100 minutes)