Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Fury, But No Sound: “The Artist”

My favorite movie about the impact on Hollywood of the coming of talking pictures will always be Singin’ in the Rain. The 1952 musical directed by Stanley Donen is giddy good fun. Who can improve upon Donald O’Connor’s pratfalls, a lovestruck Gene Kelly swinging from a lamp-post, and Debbie Reynolds smiling through tears? And then there’s the film’s secret weapon: the hilarious Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, a diva so dumb that she doesn’t realize her screechy speaking voice will be replaced by someone off-camera. Her performance as a self-proclaimed “shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament” can never be topped.

 The central joke of Singin’ in the Rain is that the elegant creatures who populate the silent screen didn’t necessarily have the vocal chops needed to insure their transition into talkies. The dilemma of the silent star whose career evaporates after the success of 1927’s The Jazz Singer is treated strictly for laughs, at the expense of the Hollywood egotists who won’t, or can’t, adapt to change. But the whole subject is addressed with considerably more gravity in a highly unusual French film from 2011, The Artist. Surveying the same era as Singin’ in the Rain, in which careers are saved by transforming The Dueling Cavalier into The Dancing Cavalier, The Artist also has its gags and its upbeat ending. Still, the plight of a star put out to pasture when talkies replace silents is treated in The Artist with considerably more gravity.

 France’s Jean Dujardin won an Oscar for playing George Valentin, an icon of the silent screen who’s cornered the market on swashbuckling roles. I don’t think it’s an accident that Dujardin looks a lot like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. He has Kelly’s physical dexterity as well as his patent-leather hair and toothy grin. He also has something of  Kelly’s trademark cockiness: early in the film, after the premiere screening of his latest derring-do epic, he appears on stage to take several bows, then delights the well-dressed audience by clowning and  showing off some slick dance moves.

 What makes The Artist so stylistically unusual is that it is filmed throughout as a silent feature, complete with title cards inserted to give us snatches of dialogue. Even after the public discovers the talking picture, George and those around him convey their thoughts strictly through gesture and facial expression.  Within the world of the story, even as George languishes in squalor, the young and vibrant Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) rises to the top of moviedom because of her musical talents. But we never hear her sing or even speak; like George she’s trapped in the silent movie we’re watching. What’s unique about George, though, is that he seems to resist sound with all of his being. There’s a nightmarish moment (it turns out to be a dream sequence) where he’s suddenly bombarded by sound: the clunk of a water glass against a table, the bark of his little dog, the trilling of a telephone, the laugh of passersby. All that noise gives him physical pain. But even in his waking hours, he seems to resist speech. That’s part of the reason for his crumbling marriage: even when he’s deeply hurt, he doesn’t want to talk about it.

 It's certainly rare for a foreign film featuring foreign stars to nab the Oscar for Best Pictures. But The Artist of course doesn’t need to be relegated to the Best Foreign Language Film category. Its lack of audible speech makes it universal, and its visible love for old Hollywood makes it endearing..






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