It’s fair to say that while I love classic cinema, I couldn’t be classified as a massive fan of the silent movie era.
I like the concept of it; I’m always amazed at some of the stuff that Buster Keaton could do, and I very much enjoyed Paul Merton’s three part documentary on the genre last year. But if you ask me to sit down and watch an entire silent movie, then I admit that I find it to be a drab experience. Maybe I’m watching the wrong ones, or maybe they just don’t hold up all that well.
But that’s not to say that all silent movies/TV shows don’t hold up well. Take for example the critically acclaimed and universally praised episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ‘Hush’. In that episode the characters had the power of speech taken away by some form of demon and so the episode tells the story without dialogue. It was probably the best episode of all seven series.
I would say the difference is that in the silent movie era, they presented the films as silent because that is all technology would allow. The chances are that had sound been available, they would have used it (and that of course is why the silent movie industry died soon after ‘talkies’ came out). The Buffy episode on the other hand embraced the concept of silence and told a story around that.
And so this brings me to The Artist – a new silent movie that has just been released to strong reviews from all corners.
There’s always a chance with things like this that it’ll blindly get praise from a certain cross-section of society because of what it is rather than how good it is, so I went along to see this film with a little bit of trepidation.
What’s It About?
The Artist tells the story of George Valentin, a top actor of the silent movie era who refuses to adapt to the move to ‘talkies’ in the late 20s and early 30s. While his star fades and his affluent lifestyle diminishes, Peppy Miller – a young actress who he helped get into the industry – becomes one of the biggest stars in all of Hollywoodland, thanks to her willingness to embrace the new technology.
But Valentin and Miller have had a thing for each other from the moment they first laid eyes upon one another, so while he is at his lowest ebb and she is at her highest, will he accept her offer of help? Or is he too stubborn to move with the times?
99% of this film is silent with only a few examples of sound and speech being used in different parts of the movie. Rest assured though that when it was used, it was to great effect.
As I’d hoped before going into this film, this was a terrific example of silent film done well. It didn’t need to be silent but it was relevant to the plot for it to be that way. Indeed, if this wasn’t silent, it probably wouldn’t have been half as good, instead being a rather bland piece about a failing actor.
Like all silent movies there is the occasional line of dialogue that has to be printed across the screen to advance the plot, but these were used only occasionally. One such line came in the form of an interview Peppy Miller was doing with the press, where she says that Silent Actors relied upon mugging to the camera to get their point across because they couldn’t use speech. Based on some of the silent films I’ve briefly seen, I would agree. But not in this film.
In The Artist, the actors manage to get almost everything they need to get across with subtle facial expressions and gestures alone; there’s no mugging here. Yes, it goes without saying that the musical score is crucial to execution of the plot, but the actors themselves must take a great deal of credit for bringing it all to life.
And I would say that the reason they are able to do this is because they are talented actors. That might sound like a rather obvious thing to say, but what I mean is that the stars of the silent era knew only about acting in silent films and so only knew how to present themselves that way, delivering their performances with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In The Artist, the cast is filled with masters of the acting craft who have learnt about how to use expression as well as dialogue, and thus are able to effectively act out silently how they otherwise normally would.
As I say above, the occasional use of sound (such as in Valentin’s dream and at the end) is a master-stroke and enhances the viewing experience and the plot.
Undoubted star of the show – apart from Valentin’s pet dog – is Jean Dujardin as Valentin himself. Combining the acting ability I’ve already mentioned with a large helping of the physical dexterity that silent era stars needed (after all, if he’s playing one he has to act like one) he genuinely looks like someone taken out of time.
And I think that is probably the greatest strength of The Artist as a whole – the authenticity of it all. Despite it having a modern flair in its execution, it looks and sounds like something made in the 30s. From the moment the film stars with its old-fashioned credits and the brilliantly clever 4:3 ratio you feel as though you are watching something from a completely different era. The only reason that you know it is a new film is because of easily recognisable actors like John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell and Jack Bauer’s dad from 24. My only shock was that Alan Dale didn’t make a cameo.
Should You Watch The Artist?
Years ago I went to see The History Boys. It was probably the only film I’ve ever seen people walk out of, making some derogatory remarks towards ‘f…ing public school snobs’ as they left. Why they bothered to even go and see the film in the first place I’ll never know, but the fact is that not every film is for everyone. Personally I have little time for mindless action films, Wayans Brothers comedies, post-apocalyptic fayre or Japanese Horror.
So I won’t say that everyone should go and see The Artist. I appreciate that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
I sat through this film with a smile on my face all the way through though. It was superbly executed; charming, dramatic and funny in equal measures. And it didn’t outstay its welcome. The chances are that had it gone on for another 30 minutes or an hour it might have become a bit tiresome. The only downside of the whole experience was sitting a couple of rows behind a triumvirate of old women who – as tends to be their want – smelled like they had bathed in a vat of pot-pourri perfume before coming to see the film. Every breath I took stung.
If you don’t like old films, if you lack the patience to watch a movie with no dialogue, if the sort of music from that era annoys you, if your cinema-going experience is defined by special effects and big budget action sequences, or if you’re the sort of person who found Bridesmaids to be a high calibre production (and I say that with only a mild sense of kidding) then this is not a film for you.
But don’t think this is a film that only a very small sub-section of society can enjoy.
I thought it was…wait for it…a work of art (and I can hear you groaning now).