By David Salazar
The era of the silent film is long behind us. It is practically inconceivable to image films nowadays with out eloquent dialogue scenes or depth soundtracks. However, Michel Havanavicius' "The Artist" makes a compelling case for not only the relevance, but even the modernity of the silent film in today's world.
People from around the industry constantly mention the importance of the visual in the film medium. The idea of dialogue is often considered more of a coloring to the film, adding layers that the visual may not always be able to portray or express. In some cases, this works beautifully, but oftentimes the marriage is not quite equal; the dialogue overpowers the visual in many instances and becomes the main vehicle through which to tell the story. The audience isn't asked to watch so much as they are asked to listen. In fact, since the invention of sound in film, this has turned into a battle of sorts over which one claims the greater importance.
What the silent film does is ask the audience to watch and pay attention to everything going on in the frame; to guess at what an actor is thinking, saying. I am not railing on dialogue by any stretch of the imagination, but there is always an added fascination at observing a silent picture and having to really work on what one is seeing.
Havanavicius' film does this, though certainly takes the most accessible route possible. Considering that most people in his audience have not been exposed to silent films often, he chose a simple but memorable and powerful story through which to portray his dream project. But out of respect for those who are silent film veterans, he executes the film with all the technique of a classic silent film and then some.
The result is that "The Artist" is the perennial crowd pleaser backed by enough laughs and drama to elicit both laughter and tears; three tremendous performances (one not by a human); and tremendous technical style to tie it together nicely.
Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are tremendous as two people headed in completely different directions in the film industry. Dujardin is George Valentin, a silent film icon, while Bejo eventually becomes the icon of the sound era. As one rises, the other falls. And yet despite this chasm between the two, there is a strong love that unites and divides them all the same. Obviously, both performances are exclusively physical. Dujardin exudes charisma, but when things go to hell in the film's second half, his eyes express the pain and anxiety of this man. Like Michael Fassbender's "Shame" turn and Ryan Gosling's "Drive" performance, Dujardin does not need to say a word to draw us in or capture his audience. Bejo's radiates beauty and sympathy with such simple gestures as a smile or glance.
The real scene stealer in this film however is Uggie, Valentin's dog. The fact that this film is silent may have proven an advantage for Uggie as the audience's increased alertness and awareness to every visual detail enables for one to catch any slight movement or expression from this virtuoso dog. Despite the film's dark moments, Uggie salvages the charm and wins over the audience.
The only real sound (save for a couple of well-planned narrative moments) is the music, composed mainly by Ludovic Bource. The music matches both the weightiness of the drama and lightness of the film's comedic moments. But the music never pushes the film to melodrama or farce; there was a strong restraint throughout. There are also quotations from other composers. One moment that was particularly memorable was the direct quotation from Bernard Hermann's score for "Vertigo." The romanticism of the music, filled with its existential Tristan Chords added to the corresponding moments on screen. I never imagined this score working so elegantly for anything but Hitchcock's masterwork (in most cases I would have been appalled and felt that Hitchcock had been disrepestected), but Hazanavicius manages this feat comfortably.
Many may take issue with the simplistic nature of the story and discount the film as a mere experiment. For me, 2011 has been a year of experimentation in the film world and "The Artist" is no exception. Experimentation and progress are at the heart of this film and one cannot help but embrace it. From its first frame to its last, this is a film that not only tributes cinema's past but embraces new possibilities in its future. If the silent film catches on again and reinstates itself as part of film making for years to come (dancing side by side with the talkie as the film explicitly suggests), this will be the film that enabled for that transition to occur. And that certainly makes this experiment worthwhile and fulfilling.