Sadly, I never saw The Artist in the cinema. Many films today are ‘made’ for the cinema in the sense that they are high action, 3D, surround sound, blow-it-up blockbusters. But if there ever was a film made to be viewed in the cinema, it would be this one, and for all the opposite reasons to the aforementioned films. The Artist is not high action or 3D, and while your cinema may have surround sound, the cinema speakers will, (for the majority of the film) only play music, because this is a silent film, modelled on the silent black and white films of the nineteen twenties. The orchestral score is fabulous, composed by Ludovic Bource, and full of light, colour and intrigue. And it has to be brilliant, because the film relies on the sound produced by this orchestral music to tell the story and connect with the audience.
To watch The Artist is to be suspended in a soundless, black and white time that is not our own, a time that is unfamiliar and yet so very familiar. This familiarity comes as the result of the film-watching culture that has pervaded the last 85 years, so much so that our culture has come to intimately understand the nuances and conventions of story in portrayed in film. Thus, we can watch a silent movie (for the first time for most younger viewers like myself!) and easily comprehend the nature of the dialogue and character relationships perfectly. That said, there are infrequent subtitles for speech within the film that cannot be predicted or interpreted by the viewer.
The French film is about glamorous ‘Hollywoodland’ in the late 1920s and through the 1930s, and follows the career paths of two actors, one a successful silent film actor ‘George Valentin’ (Jean Dujardin) and one an aspiring, little-known actress ‘Peppy Miller’ (Berenice Bejo). The film paints a fascinating dichotomy between the demise of George Valentin, and the inverse rise to fame of Peppy Miller as “talkies” become an overnight success, propelling silent films into a sphere of quaintness and irrelevance.
As I watch the film I am astounded at how initially adrift I feel as I enter a world without sound. The first signficant non-sound moment is beautifully shot, and occurs when George Valentin is standing behind the screen at his latest film’s premiere. As the film (within the film) ends I find myself shocked not to hear an immediate applause, but George’s face registers a beautifully acted look of suspense, followed by feigned surprise (so crucial to his cocky, man-about-town character) when the audience ‘applauds’, although the viewer can’t hear it. It is the subtlety of cues like this throughout the whole movie that drive it, and connect the audience with the story.
It is when watching a silent film, that I truly understand the idea touted by those with visual and hearing impairments, that when one sense is lost, the other 4 senses compensate in marvellous ways. The Artist requires the viewer’s full commitment and attention at all times. Look away once and you have missed a myriad of nuances in the actors’ body language, facial expression and speech. In view of this, it is astounding how many traditional stereotypes of film we understand, even without sound; for example, the cranky, hard-to-please producer who yells at his crew to spring into action, the devoted servant, the softly spoken and understanding nurse, the estranged and hysterical (soon to be ex-) wife, the depressed genius on the cusp of self destruction – all within this movie, let alone the thousands more in other films!
Through watching a silent film, I comprehended again how much of our understanding and connection with other humans is reliant on body language and facial expression. There is a fantastic TED talk on this subject, and how attention to your body language can shape who you are, here: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.html
I don’t want to give much away, because the brilliance of scenes such as George’s nightmare earlier in the film, and particularly the last two scenes is splendid, and best viewed as an unpredictable surprise, but let me conclude by espousing the absolute “French-ness” of The Artist, the cinematography, the artistry, the orchestral score, the acting, direction and general magnificence of this gift of a film. It is truly a benchmark for films today, and ironically it borrows most of its ideas from films made almost 100 years ago, so maybe there is a lesson there?
Like so many things in our history that we cherish, to look to the future of film, we often need to look at the past, when film was simple, poised and charming.
And if this film ever hits the cinema screen again, you can bet you’ll see me there!