“The Artist” is a Silent Movie for the All of Us


The Artist Poster

Unlike my occasional guest movie critic Jay, I am not a movie snob. I am inclined to be bored with silence, dislike black and white and unimpressed with “arty” films. Despite these high odds stacked against it, I enjoyed the colorless and (almost) soundless “The Artist” (2011).  I really liked it a lot.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a box office star in the era of silent films. He doesn’t realize it but his time is coming quickly to an end with the rise of movies with dialogues. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is the star of this new era, but her first gig was playing a minor role in Valentin’s film. In that first encounter, Valentin not only helped Miller keep her job, but also gave her a distinctive look–a little mole–that became a catalyst for her career. As Valentin’s and Miller’s careers go in different directions, Miller, who is in love with Valentin, seeks to help her former idol.

The greatest achievement of “The Artist” is to make it a silent film that is accessible to the moviegoers of the modern period. This is no small accomplishment considering that it’s been nearly a century since silent films were the norm. Only the most ardent of fans of movies would have seen silent films, but screenwriters ensured that more casual moviegoer audiences will be able to make a connection to that world by making Miller the symbol of our world. By being able to associate with Miller, we can connect to Valentin’s world through contrast: we know what Miller’s world is like, and it is a world that Valentin can’t adapt to. The moviegoers of the 20th century can associate with the film because it is really a silent movie about movies with dialogue.

The film is also modern in its presentation. For sure, it has important elements of silent films, like trying to understand most of the dialogue through context and lip-reading and important dialogue showing up on placards. But no one will mistake this for a silent film from the early 20th century. For one, the film occasionally escapes the world of silence. I only counted two of these scenes, but they are very effective because they subtlety but instantaneously allow us to understand what it must have been like to move from silence to sound.

There are, though, more subtle ways in which this film is modern, like pacing. The Akira Kurosawa classic “Rashomon” (1950) is a gripping, 88 minute film, but the movie feels like it goes on for two hours and a half. Even “From Russia With Love” (1964), an “action” movie that is the best in the venerable James Bond series, doesn’t move at the pace that people will consider action-packed today. The trap in making “The Artist” would have been to try to make a pure silent film. That the filmmakers never did–and thus never feels antiquated–is an accomplishment worth commending.

One of the things I wondered after watching this film was whether the story would have been able to sustain itself with sound and color. Put another way, I asked myself whether I liked the film merely because of the black and white, soundless “gimmick,” if I may be allowed to use that expression. The story, after all, is both simple and predictable. The fall of Valentin, the rise of Miller and how Miller saves Valentin because of her affection for him–none of these are plot lines that a B-rated romantic drama haven’t tried before.

But I realized that the question actually misses the point. In a way, the story needed to be simple for the audience, like myself, that has never seen a silent film before. Trying to do a film with the depth of “Schindler’s List” (1993) would have been distracting. The goal of the “The Artist” is to enjoy the movie experience in a way that we no longer enjoy it, and to learn a little about cinematic history along the way. We no longer go see movies and have an orchestra play the music in the front of the theatre like a modern musical. We no longer rely on a handful of dialogue shown in placards to follow the plot. We no longer experience background music as the mood maker, the plot driver and the context giver all in one. Yet “The Artist” gives all of that in an understated, modern way.

Yes, “The Artist” is backed up by strong acting and incredible music, both of which garnered an Academy Award. They are not the reasons to go see the film, though. Rather, everyone should see this film for a reason grander but less concrete: this film provides a truly unique way of enjoying film, which, at least historically speaking, really isn’t unique at all.

“The Artist” is concluding its run in Japan and is available on DVD in the United States.


2 Responses to ““The Artist” is a Silent Movie for the All of Us”

  1. 1 Jay the Elitist July 9, 2012 at 11:11 am


    • 2 joesas July 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

      L-O-L! I thought you’d commend me for becoming enlightened. And I’d thought you’d be thrilled you got a mention in this esteemed blog. But before you call me a hypocrite, notice how I commended the film for not being too artsy. Take that!

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