The Artist: giving film fans the silent treatment

Michel Hazanavicius’ black-and-white movie manages to be both a homage to Hollywood’s past and wittily original.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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In this week’s Monday edition of the famed entertainment trade-magazine Variety, Kim Novak – the now 78-year-old star of Hitchcock’s Vertigo – paid for a full-page ad bearing the title ‘I want to report a rape’. The piece lambasted Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist for its use of film composer Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Love Theme’, which was originally written for Hitchcock’s 1958 detective classic. Novak insisted that this was ‘morally wrong’ and that it was using the ‘emotions it engenders as if it were their own’.

Given that this piece of music has been used in countless films since Vertigo, this fierce tirade feels more than a little unwarranted. Nevertheless, The Artist does seem to be an inescapably derivative project.

Hazanavicius’ film is a black-and-white silent film about a black-and-white silent-film star, complete with a jazzy soundtrack and intertitles to spell out the dialogue. Not only does this feel a little gimmicky, but Hazanavicius also appears to have more or less lifted the plot from A Star is Born: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his fame when he decides to take aspiring starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), under his wing. Unfortunately, with the invention of the talkies, the two trade places, for as George finds himself outdated and out of a job, Peppy becomes a star of the new medium.

On the surface, The Artist seems like little more than a nostalgic exercise, its makers plundering the history of early Hollywood and using its imagery ‘as if it were their own’. However, this really isn’t the case. Deftly manipulating the conventions of the silent film, The Artist is, contrary to Novak’s barbed comments, a piece of movie magic in its own right.

The film begins with the premiere of one of George’s hammy adventure flicks. Standing behind the screen as the end credits roll and the film’s theme fades away, he waits to hear the audience’s response. As we are deprived of diegetic sound, all we see is an elated George clench his fist and smile in triumph, until the camera cuts to the adoring audience standing and clapping to confirm that all has gone well. Despite going into The Artist fully aware it was a silent film, this initial moment still seemed bizarre and it was incredibly funny.

With scenes like this, Hazanavicius plays with the audience to great effect, yet much of the humour also emanates from the way the characters themselves seem to know they are in a silent film. When George is first invited to see the early sound test for talking pictures, he dismisses them as a fad. Of course, he soon realises that his refusal to embrace this new form will destroy his career. In a hilarious dream sequence which follows, George ransacks his dressing room, terrorised by the sound the clattering items produce.

Although this kind of self-aware schtick recurs throughout the film, Hazanavicius still manages to carve a moving story about the fickleness of showbusiness within his cartoonish world. George’s whiskey-slicked slide into obscurity is truly heartbreaking and Jardin’s performance – which earned him Best Actor award at Cannes last year – straddles parody and pathos with incredible dexterity.

Due to its universal acclaim and considerable box-office success, The Artist has already been tipped as a serious Oscar contender this year. It has been invariably celebrated as a love letter to a bygone age of Hollywood. But more than merely indulging silent-film cliché, Hazanavicius has revitalised a lost art in commercial filmmaking: he has produced an irresistible and entertaining family feature that demands to be experienced in the cinema.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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