This article contains massive spoilers for The Artist. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film.
The Artist is one of the bravest films you’ll see this year. Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-tipped film tells the story of a silent film star struggling to cling to his career in the era of the talkie and is (almost) completely silent. But that’s not why it’s so brave. The Artist isn’t just a film about silents; it’s also about silence. In a fast-moving world where the clacking of keys and chirruping of mobile phones ring out with the sound of a nuclear explosion, The Artist dares to be different – it dares to slow down and shut up.
The film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a swashbuckling silent movie icon and the artist of the title. We meet him as he’s premiering his latest film, A Russian Affair. The picture’s a success, but The Artist‘s audience doesn’t know it immediately. As A Russian Affair ends, Valentin stands behind the screen with his co-star and the film’s producers waiting for a reaction from the film’s crowd. This will decide the picture’s fate. The Artist goes completely silent, a few seconds pass and finally Valentin reacts. The audience is applauding – the film’s a hit! This is the first of The Artist‘s tricks. Without sound, we only learn of the audience’s appreciation through Valentin’s joy, the purely cinematic sight of a person celebrating. Welcome to the world of Michel Hazanavicius, where the moving picture is king.
Valentin’s reign as king of his world is less assured though. Leaving the movie theatre to greet his adoring public, he bumps into (or rather, is bumped into by) Berenice Bejo’s luminous Peppy Miller, an eager young extra who’s about to make it very big indeed. Her inadvertent public appearance with Valentin gets her on the cover of Variety and soon enough she’s making her way through the Hollywood system, securing an extra role in Valentin’s latest effort, A German Affair, then a talking role, then a supporting role. Eventually, she’s got top billing, taking interviews with the press and packing them in at the local picture house. A star is born, and she’s shining bright.
Her rise coincides with the emergence of the talkie, and as she benefits from the technology, Valentin suffers. In two dazzling sequences, Hazanavicius breaks with the form to emphasise the character’s increasing alienation. The first comes after Valentin has been informed of the talkie. His initial reaction is uproarious laughter, but it doesn’t last long. Hazanavicius cuts to Valentin in his dressing room. He takes a sip of water and puts the glass down. The silence is broken. The glass makes a clink as it hits the table. Pretty soon, everything’s making a noise – everything expect Valentin. Later, when the effects of Valentin’s self-funded silent flop Tears of Love and the continued economic Depression have taken their toll, he drunkenly watches his old films, eventually staring his own shadow down on the screen. Hazanavicius shows Valentin’s shadow breaking from its master and leaving. Technology has left him so alienated, he can’t even stand to be around himself.
Technology is the core antagonist at the heart of The Artist, and Hazanavicius reacts against it to create a stirring defence of the purity of the artform. In one of the director’s most startling coups, he shoots the film’s most important scene in total silence. That is to say, without intertitles and without music. Nothing – just empty air. It comes after Peppy has saved Valentin from a suicide attempt. The pair share a silent embrace, leaving the audience with just that. The sight of two people hugging. It’s pure emotion, pure moving image, pure cinema. Martin Scorsese, whose Hugo touches on similar thematic ground to Hazanavicius’s film, has said that the sight of two people interacting is the most spectacular image cinema can conjure. In an era suffocated by 3D, HD and other ‘spectacular’ new technologies, The Artist proves him overwhelmingly correct.
The film concludes with another astonishing moment, in which Hazanavicius breaks silent rules one final time. Resolving to put their problems behind them, Peppy and George hatch a plan – they’ll film a musical together. This way, George can relive his glory days but won’t have to lower himself to the talkie. In the final scene, the pair dance – beautifully, brilliantly – and end the scene staring straight down the camera panting – audibly. The director yells cut – again, audibly – and asks the pair for a second take. George, smiling, obliges. “With pleasure,” he says in the film’s sole line of spoken dialogue. Our hero has rediscovered his voice.
The Artist emerges then not just as a statement on cinema, but on society. 2011 was, as Time pointed out, the year of the protestor, and whether those protestors were seeking to oust dictatorial governments in the Middle East, demanding an end to sweeping public sector cuts in Britain or insisting that justice be meted out to greedy bankers on Wall Street, they were all doing what George Valentin does in The Artist: they were all looking for their voice. As new technologies help us and hinder us in achieving that aim, The Artist reminds us that it’s people, not machines that count. And in a world dominated by iPhones and social media, that’s not just brave, that’s a revolution.