Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist: Silence is Golden

For all the joy it brings, the best film of the year may be The Artist. At least, this was the movie that gave me the most personal pleasure. I regard The Artist as a splendid holiday gift, reminding me of the delights of the motion picture medium.

So old it’s new, The Artist uses tricks from cinema’s early days to tell a familiar story, one that melds the romance-between-unequals from A Star is Born to Singin’ in the Rain’s fascination with the impact of talkies on the silent film industry. Cleverly, The Artist does all this by calling upon the conventions of silent film: the actors’ broad gestures; the black-and-white cinematography; the carefully-worded title cards; the musical score that clues us in on the emotions behind the matters at hand. In its way, The Artist is saluting the whole history of film. It’s no accident that Jean Dujardin, who plays silent-movie star George Valentin, is almost a dead-ringer for Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Though we first see Valentin emulating a Douglas Fairbanks-type swashbuckler, the expansive way he flirts with his adoring public closely parallels Kelly’s style as a similar character in Singin’ in the Rain. No surprise, then, that -- for Valentin as for Kelly’s Don Lockwood – the divide between silents and talkies is finally bridged when the dueling cavalier becomes the dancing cavalier.

In fact, famous film moments abound throughout The Artist. The increasingly strained relationship between George and his wife is wordlessly conveyed through a series of breakfast-table scenes that reminded me of Citizen Kane. Then there’s a loyal manservant, a breathless chase to the rescue, and a heroic little dog. And, yes, I’m sure there are specific references I missed, at least on first viewing. I do know that the score is a brilliant pastiche of riffs from classic films of many eras. This is a movie I definitely hope to savor more than once.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but two examples of Michel Hazanavicius’s filmmaking smarts linger in my mind. One is from the very beginning of the film, where we are drawn from watching the silent-movie-within-the-movie into the realization that even when off-screen these performers will not be speaking aloud. It’s a graceful segue, designed to soothe modern viewers who expect that their movie tickets will buy dialogue and noisy sound effects. Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, Hazanavicius allows an ambiguous title card to fool us into momentarily reaching the wrong conclusion. When the truth was revealed, the audience who shared the film with me let out an audible gasp, a tribute to the power of the written word to manipulate our emotions.

In fact, though this is a silent film, language can be regarded as one of its central subjects. Although The Artist has a Belgian pedigree, and its two headliners are French-speakers, an American audience can enjoy it without language barriers getting in the way. It’s proof, if proof be needed, that cinema is truly a universal language.

A final note: it’s a pleasure to see a movie that treats vintage Los Angeles with such affection. Movie palaces like the Orpheum Theatre and architectural gems like the Bradbury Building are displayed with loving care. I especially enjoyed the glimpses of Fremont Place, a once-exclusive gated community which gained notoriety in the 1950s because singer Nat “King” Cole was not white enough to take up residence. In the era depicted in The Artist, it bore no such obvious stigma, and I loved seeing it looking so ready for its closeup.


  1. As I saw for myself when this film was presented at the Canne Film Festival, it had a lot of local support. You could feel that. It was as if, they knew it would have "legs".

  2. What I'm wondering, Keith, is whether Hollywood will anoint this foreign (but still VERY homegrown) film with top Oscar honors. After all, it is a love letter to Hollywood -- and in a way it's a tribute to all the Europeans and other foreigners who helped make the American film industry what it is.

  3. Great post as usual, Beverly. I've become curious about Gene Kelly. I saw a portion of a special on him on TCM and I may venture and buy some of his movies. I've seen SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but nothing else.

  4. I grew up loving Gene Kelly. What a fascinating contrast to Fred Astaire -- whereas Astaire was dapper, elegant, urbane, Kelly was much more a regular guy, even a roughneck at times. And he could be very funny. "On the Town" is one of my all-time favorites. Aside from Kelly it presents the adorable Vera Ellen, and the unbeatable pairing of the young Frank Sinatra with always-spunky Betty Garrett (as a man-hungry taxi driver named Hildy). But Kelly could be arty and ambitious too, as in the brilliant but over-the-top finale to "An American in Paris."

  5. Oh, I could listen to you sing that tune all day, Ms. Gray. I too always loved Gene Kelly. I appreciated Astaire - I loved Kelly. From the early stuff like On the Town - through my fave Singing in the Rain - An American in Paris - all the way to - yes I'm going to say it - Xanadu. Kelly was always incredibly entertaining.

    I went to see The Artist, but something was wrong with the theater's sound so I left.

  6. Mr. Craig, was there SERIOUSLY something wrong with the sound when you went to see The Artist? What irony! Actually the score and use of sound in that film were extremely clever. I'll have another shout-out to Singin' in the Rain in the very near future.