When Silence Talks

Film review: The Artist (Director: Michel Hazanavicius)

By Sascha Krieger

It is not uncommon in times of crises, to look for solutions in the past which, as a rule, had always been better than the dreary past. And so it is not much of a surprise that, in an America tortured by economic crisis and its decreasing importance in the world, the most celebrated film of the year, the one Hollywood throws every accolade on it has to offer, is a black and white silent movie looking back at Hollywood’s golden age. Alas, it was made by a Frenchman and its star is French as well. Even Hollywood, it seems, can be made better abroad. In a year that has seen remarkable films dealing with a society’s identity crisis, the many awards may appear as a sign of excapism. Or maybe The Artist is just this good?

The film tells the story of Hollywood’s biggest silent movie star, George Valentine whose career is cut short when he refuses to join the new talking movie era. He goes through a major identity crisis, almost commits suicide but survives through the help of those who love him and even gains new success by finding a language of his own which allows him to cut out a place in the new film era – or to put it shortly: by reinventing himself. Maybe there is a message for our uncertain times.

Be this as it may, The Artist works on so many other levels. In the beginning it is hard to remember that this is not a film from the 1920s, so spot on does it capture the esthetic of storytelling, imagery and editing – and, of course, the expressive acting style required by silent movies and brilliantly mastered by the films cast, especially Jean Dujardin, a movie star somewhere between Rudolph Valentino and Groucho Marx, and Bérénice Bejo, whose starlet Peppy Miller is a fascinating mixture of dumb blonde (although she isn’t even blond) of adoring lover. Both seem to come straight from the silent movie era, Dujardin’s George Valentin certainly would have made it there. And so would George’s dog who is there in the comedy and the tragedy, an animal clown and a loving friend – and the secret star of this film. Nothing here is ever only one thing.

The Artist is, of course, first and foremost an homage to the silent move to a time where actors did not need dialogue because they had faces as a character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard once put it. The film is full of reminiscences, styles and scenes taken straight out of the era’s greatest films. The fascination, the wonder that early audiences must have felt, it is captured here, as the viewer also must learn to deal with the absence of the familiar. When, at the start, we witness a film premiere which culminates in thundering and yet completely silent applause, the modern viewer may, for the first time, learn that silence can be heard and that it can be painfully loud as in that scene towards the end when George and Peppy, who represent the old and the new, finally come together, without a sound, not even music.

Director Michel Hazanavicius manages a perfect balance between the comic and the serious, moves effortlessly from slapstick to tragedy and back into romantic comedy. It is a mix of genres in which everything from the world of silent movies finds its place and still it is more than a series of quotations. There are memorable scenes such as when Peppy helps George’s empty coat to engage in a sensual embrace or when, in a nightmare, everything begins to make a sound yet George remains silent. The whole film keeps coming back to the language-silence topic: From the opening scene, in which – as part of a film – Russian spies try to torture George’s character into speaking but he remains silent. Repeatedly, speaking appears as frightening, threatening, unbalancing.

And yet, at the very end, George says a word, in a thick French accent, which may explain his refusal to speak on film. So maybe it wasn’t his pride, his insistence on being an artist rather than a puppet, after all? Who know? All we do know is that this is a fascinating eye- and ear-opener which works as an homage to an art form long lost, as a parable on the necessity of change, a declaration of love to love and friendship and, I’m sure, on many other levels. Maybe, at least once in a while, seeing things in black and white is not such a bad thing after all.

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