A few months ago I read something that blew my mind; it was a headline proclaiming the “inevitable death of the PC.” What? A few people buy a toy tablet and suddenly the personal computer is dead? The personal computer, the device that has been the center of modern life for decades, was apparently on the chopping block and far too many people seem to be even remotely concerned about this. Where was I when this memo went around? This was hardly an isolated incident, in fact declaring the “death” of things is increasingly becoming one of the most polular pastimes in the 21st Century, especially when it comes to movies. Only a month or two ago Scott Tobias of the Onion A.V. Club wrote an alarming article called “Sweet emulsion: why the (near) death of [celluloid] film matters,” about the dangers of a conversion to digital. But neither of these things has chilled me quite as much of the casual way people talk about the death of “physical media” when it comes to viewing films at home in favor of instant streaming. I won’t go into all the details about how this transition freaks me out, but suffice it to say that I was more than happy with physical media and when I think about “instant streaming” all I see are the downsides. What was even more distressing about all this was that everyone around me seems to have been replaced with a podperson who doesn’t have a problem with any of this and is happy to just say “This is the future!” as if that alone justified anything.
Though this seems like a uniquely modern trend, in fact people were going through similar existential panics about technological transitions early in the last century as well, at least that’s what can be gleamed from Michel Hazanavicius’ new film The Artist, which deals with the tricky transition that was undergone when “the talkies” showed up and signaled the “death” of the silent film. In particular, the film shows the toll this transition took on a fictional silent film star named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who stars alongside his Jack Russell Terrier in a number of highly popular adventure films. Early in the film he’s spontaneously kissed by one of his female fans named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), which is caught on camera and gives her some momentary fame. When he sees her on the set of his next movie he offers her a role as an extra, and while they’re only together onscreen for a brief moment, it does have an impact on Valentin. What Valentin doesn’t realize is that he’s training in his replacement. With the advent of sound Valentin’s talents will become increasingly obsolete in Hollywood while Peppy will become a star in her own right.
Oh wait, did I forget to mention that this is a silent movie? Well, it does use sound in two and a half scenes so technically it isn’t, but for the most part it is trying to emulate pre-sound cinema by being a black and white academy ratio film with almost all of its dialogue taking place via title cards. This isn’t a wholly original idea; the independent Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has made extensive use of silent film techniques and I also saw a pretty cool rendition of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulu” as envisioned as a silent film that was made for the festival circuit not too long ago. Still, The Artist is a different beast from any of those projects in that it’s actually made to be enjoyed by wide audiences and features cameo appearances by a number of recognizable actors like James Cromwell and John Goodman. The film has also been made with a relatively large fifteen million dollar budget and is distinctly aiming to entertain rather than serve as some sort of bold artistic experiment.
The silent films I’ve always been most drawn to have been the ones made late in the silent era by European directors like Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and F.W. Murnau, but those aren’t really the kinds of silent films that this is paying tribute to. This is distinctly paying tribute to the silent films that were made in Hollywood and which sought to entertain mass audiences, particularly the comedies, though this isn’t really trying to be a tribute to Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton either. There’s very little slapstick here though there are some physical gags and some of them, like a moment where Bérénice Bejo interacts with a jacket on a rack, are fairly inspired. The film’s fealty to the visual techniques of the time is also quite admirable; outside of a few self consciously modern moments the film could indeed be mistaken for a genuine artifact of a bygone era, at least at first glance.
A big part of why the film feels so much like a genuine silent film is that the film’s principle leads are really effective in their mastery of the pantomime of silent film acting. Jean Dujardin, who looks incredibility dapper to begin with, brings a lot of glamour to his role. He really does look like he could have been a movie star had he been working in the era depicted and he’s also able to bring a certain cocky swagger to the stage and really make it seem to the audience like this swagger is earned. For all the press he’s gotten, I think Bérénice Bejo might actually have one upped him, both in terms of what she’s able to convey without words and in terms of really seeming like she could have been a movie star in her era; she really makes you wish you could watch a Peppy Miller film in its entirety. In fact these two actors might just be too good, because they seem to inhabit a completely different realm than everyone else in the movie. It feels like Dujardin and Bejo spent months studying silent films and meticulously working out their routines while the supporting actors just flew in, came on set and did their best and the difference sometimes shows.
The film’s story, with a focus on the difficult transition into “the talkies” is of course reminiscent of the classic 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, and I’m not entirely sure it brings a whole lot new to the table in that regard. As much as I like the idea of seeing a silent film made in 2011, the choice to make the film that way does have its drawbacks. Specifically, because we never hear Valentin or Miller’s voices we never really get a good idea of why the former is unsuited to the talkies while the other excels in them. The film also is never really able to convey why Valentin is so hostile to the advent of sound. Students of film who have seen some of the really early sound films (which were indeed pathetic when compared to the films made late in the silent era) will understand, but it isn’t really all that clear within the film itself.
The film’s real problem though, is that its main character isn’t nearly as sympathetic as the film seems to think he is. I think a major part of why that’s the case is that, contrary to the title, I don’t think Valentin is much of an artist and the film doesn’t do much to dissuade the audience of this either. The clips we see of the movies that Valentin has been making aren’t very flattering; they seem like sub-Douglass Fairbanks adventure films with comic relief provided by his dog. The film gives us no reason to believe that “A Russian Affair,” “A German Affair,” or “Tears of Love” would stand the test of time or be interesting to anyone eighty years later or even ten years later. Consequently Valentin seems to be torn up about the “death” of silent films less out of artistic attachment to the form and more out of a belief that he’s entitled to the fame and fortune that the form has given him. That’s the thing about this movie, at the end of the day it’s all about the petty plight of a rich guy being forced to live like a middle class person without a private chauffer and that’s about it. The film does at least try to make Valentin atone for some of his dickish behavior early in the film, but it’s still not all that easy to care about the fate of someone who finds himself in a suicidal state just because he needs to start living a less than lavish lifestyle.
That is probably a bit beyond the point, this is supposed to be a comedy after all, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say it was all that funny I would say that it is very… cute. In fact I’d say that it was aggressively cute, and not a whole lot more. That’s maybe damning the film with faint praise, but it should be noted that I suspect a lot of people will give it credit for being much more than “cute.” I was more than a little bit jarred when the crowd I saw the film with broke out in applause after the film, and that was at an average 2:30 P.M. matinee on a Tuesday. The film is pleasing audiences because it has (to quote another Harvey Weinstein acquisition) “love, and a bit with a dog,” and that’s fine, but it takes a little more than that to stand the test of time.
*** out of Four