It is almost an absurd notion that one would feel inclined to make a silent film in our modern age. But honestly, there is no better time. We are facing the largest technological transition since the beginning of cinema. Studios are going out of their way to push for 3D films, causing more productions to shoot digitally and more theaters to project digitally than ever before. This is, without a doubt, the first time the core technology of cinema has been replaced.
The Artist arrives in the midst of this huge overturn, brimming with a longing for the older ways. To many people, silent film was killed too quickly. Much of the visual storytelling techniques of the era seemed to be just beginning to mature, before they were greedily stomped out by the studio system. The Artist not only lovingly explores silent cinema, but it also reminds us that filmmaking is an art form that should not be tampered with by exterior forcing.
Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, a dashing silent film star who specializes in romantic and action pictures. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, a beautiful nobody who rises to stardom after literally bumping into George. When sound cinema begins to invade, George refuses to conform and ends up falling by the wayside, discarded and forgotten. Peppy, on the other hand, gladly adapted to the technology, and rockets into fame because of it. George feels threatened by her, because she stands for the march of progress, while Peppy becomes obsessed with George. She stands for those who adapted, but who remained aware of and influenced by the past.
The film is undoubtably a bit of a masterpiece. It is entirely unafraid of presenting something that appears archaic. It is a perfect example of a movie that cannot be made as a sound film and have the same impact. It is firmly rooted in our own context, despite it being made in ‘the old way.’ It expresses a profound love for film without truly uttering a word about it. And finally, it is self aware, engaging the audience’s imagination, intellect, and wonder in a way that modern films often do not.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo turn in fantastic performances. It seems a bit odd to say such thing of two actors who are channeling an acting method long out of style. However, cinema without spoken word is something entirely unique. With the word, one can express anything one wants, however one wants. Without it, the performance is locked into emotion only. This is, after all, the most basic form of communication anyways. But to do this without ever making the audience cringe or not understand is something that many actors cannot say they have ever done. And Dujardin and Bejo do this splendidly. Thanks to them, I spent the first third of the film with a huge smile plastered to my face, the second third with a tear in my eye, and the last third going from a huge smile to overwhelming sadness to absolute joy. The film truly tugs at the heartstrings, but not in a way that would ever feel like you’re being taken advantage of. It makes you care about silent film and the transition to sound. It makes you care for those amazing actors who became forgotten due to their unpleasant or unintelligible speaking voices.
The cinematography should be given praise as well. While it was shot in black and white and in the standard academy aspect ratio (1.33:1, or in other words: fullscreen), the cinematic language draws both from silent cinema as well as modern cinema. In this way, it makes itself known as a modern film. But by the same token, it references films such as Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin. It does not attempt to emulate the vintage aesthetic, presenting rock-steady frame registration, smooth-as-glass crane work, and perfect focus pulls and racks. The picture is not overly grainy, dusty, or scratched, instead favoring a clean look that is not concerned with cheapening its image with overdone post production filters. Overall, The Artist’s cinematography remains some of the most unique of the year.
This is an example of a film that is able to pay homage to an entire generation of films, while commenting on the current state of the industry, never uttering a word about it. The Artist shines with a well thought out, unique, powerful, and moving theme and aesthetic. Coming out of the theater, I was in awe. It was able to speak in a cinematic vocabulary, rather than an audible one, with such skill, that it could very well redefine how some filmmakers approach their work. It was able to strike me, a long term film lover, just as much as anyone else in the theater, regardless of their experience with film.
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(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Dialogue: ***** (inter-titles are used, but not overused)
Art Direction: *****
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: **** 1/2
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: *****