Writer-director Michel Hazanvicius and actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo of OSS 177: Cairo, Nest of Spies are back, this time in a film set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. And once again Hazanavicius uses cinematic techniques appropriate to the time, to the point of making the film silent, black and white, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and with the technical credits in the opening titles.
The story begins in 1927, with the protagonist, George Valentin (Dujardin), on top of the world, an immensely popular and likable silent film action star in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks. Just after his latest successful premiere he meets an appealing young woman named Peppy Miller (Bejo) and helps her get a start in the movies. They’re clearly attracted to each other, but Valentin is married, so nothing comes of it.
In the meantime talking pictures are rapidly taking over the film business, and Valentin wants nothing to do with them. (When we first see him, it’s a scene from one of his films in which he’s being interrogated by torture and exclaiming, on a title card, “I won’t talk!”)
In reality, a lot of silent-era actors and filmmakers did indeed dismiss sound as a gimmick that if anything took away from the art of motion pictures, the way many today react to 3D or Smell-O-Vision or would be less than enthusiastic about a recorded soundtrack accompanying a painting or a sculpture. Charlie Chaplin couldn’t envision his Tramp character in a speaking role, and in 1931, after Hollywood had otherwise fully completed its rapid transition to silent, he released his most financially and critically successful silent film, City Lights.
At one point Valentin overhears Peppy Miller, by now a major new movie star, attacking silent movies and their style of acting as ludicrous and outdated. He’s offended, but it also helps convince him that his career is over.
To belabor the obvious, there are echoes here of Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born, but the similarities superficial, and in the case of the former almost nonexistent (but see the bit of trivia below).
Today many of us have little appreciation for silent cinema, which as with many arts is an acquired taste. So I was pleasantly surprised that The Artist was well received not just by critics and fans of classic film but also by audiences, many of whom have probably never seen a sound film before. I’ve found that watching a silent film with an audience can make a big difference in one’s reaction to a movie, even more than with a sound film. If you haven’t seen The Artist yet I recommend it, but if possible see it with a group of friends.
By the way, Peppy’s mansion isn’t a studio set; it was actually Mary Pickford’s home before she married Douglas Fairbanks, and the bed you see is really Mary Pickford’s bed. In another connection with the past, Dujardin and Bejo practiced their dance numbers in the same studio used by Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly to rehearse for Singin’ in the Rain.