The Artist (2011)
“We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!” says aging silent film star, Norma Desmond in the 1950 film, Sunset Blvd, as she simultaneously explains her fall from stardom and her disdain for the "talkies," movies with vocal soundtracks that became the norm during in the late 1920s. Some in the movie industry echoed Ms. Desmond’s sentiments, thinking that adding a soundtrack to a film was just a passing fad, a vulgar novelty. Little did they realize how sound would revolutionize the movie industry. Many fine actors and actresses, those with heavy accents, speech impediments, and poor grammar, were the first to go when silent pictures transitioned to sound. But something was loss during this evolution. Acting became all about the dialogue, all about the writing and actors began to rely less on physicality and using their whole face, especially their eyes, and not just their mouths to project their lines. It seems that something vital is missing from their performance by not utilizing their whole being to act, as if their talent for storytelling has weakened from the lack of such exercise.
The Artist, directed by Michael Hazanavicius, is a throwback to that bygone silent movie era. Beautifully shot in black and white, the movie relates the story of an actor struggling with the change from the silent to the talking film era. The film picks up in medias res as George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin, who is considered to be the French equivalent of George Clooney, as he pantomimes being electrocuted, lighting bolts and all, in a scene that cleverly emulates the monster reanimation sequence in Frankenstein. “Speak! Speak!” cries George’s tormentor. It’s the world premiere of his latest film. The audience is dressed to the nines, while a full orchestra provides the music. Afterwards, to much adulation, George takes the stage, mugging for the audience, aided by his intrepid and scene stealing canine sidekick Uggy, while his neglected female costar in the film fumes just off stage.
George is at the pinnacle of his career, the biggest star at Kinograph Studios. While outside a movie theater showing off for the cameras, a young lady staggers into the frame, and consequently his life. Peppy Miller, played by the radiant Bérénice Benjo, is a struggling actress, who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Flashbulbs ignite when she drops her purse and literally stumbles into George. He gamely poses for a few photos with her, one landing on the front page of a newspaper with the caption, “Who’s That Girl?” Who is she indeed as Peppy hopes that this notice would be her stepping stone into the movie industry. The photograph, along with her dancing ability, lands her a small role in Kinograph’s next picture, a bit part that once again throws George and Peppy together as the share a dance, for take after take. Here we witness the budding of their relationship. Their intimacy deepens as Peppy sneaks into George’s dressing room. In my favorite part of the film, Peppy interacts with George’s tuxedo that’s hanging on a coat rack, slipping her arm through one of the sleeves as she fantasizes that its George’s arm caressing her. Predictably George enters the room and instead of being upset, he is oddly touched. He gives Peppy some advice; “If you want to be actress, you have to have what others don’t.” Apparently all that she was lacking was a beauty mark over her lip.
Fast forward two years as George Valentin’s career starts to fade. Kinograph Studios decides to stop all production on silent pictures and will only being making talkies for now on. This is devastating news for George. He is reluctant to transition into the talkies that he thinks are a joke. Because of this unwillingness, his popularity drops precipitously as Peppy Miller’s career soars. This change of circumstances for these two is exquisitely portrayed during a scene at Kinograph Studios’ offices. George, pretty much fired from the studio, descends the stairs as Peppy is running up them. They stop for a moment to talk, him standing a few steps below her, a simple but poignant representation of Peppy’s rise and George’s decline.
Peppy Miller soon becomes the biggest star at Kinograph Studio. George, in a last ditch effort to save his career, finances his own silent movie, sparing no expense, emptying his savings as the picture runs over cost due to his obsession with detail and his desperate need for the film to succeed. Unfortunately, the day his picture is set to debut is on the same day Peppy’s new movie opens. Coincidentally, both films premiere the day after the stock market crashes, wiping out George’s fortune entirely. George’s wife Doris, played by an unrecognizable Penelope Ann Miller, leaves him. He is forced to fire his loyal manservant/driver Clifton (a wonderful James Cromwell) and has to auction off all of his possessions. In a fit of despair while watching one of his old silent movies, he sets afire the highly flammable film negatives in his apartment and is trapped by the flames. Uggy to the rescue as he runs off and charmingly convinces a policeman to follow him back to the apartment building. George is saved, suffering from smoke inhalation and burns on his hands from clutching the one thing he was able to save, the reel containing the daily rushes of the film where he was dancing with Peppy.
George comes to in Peppy’s mansion, where he was taken to recover from his wounds. While there, he and Peppy become better acquainted. She fights with Kinograph Studios’ boss, played by the always excellent John Goodman, to green light a picture staring her and George. The movie mogul balks at her suggestion; “George is a silent movie actor. He’s a nobody now.” Peppy vows to quit her current picture if he doesn’t give in to her demands; “Hey, I’m blackmailing you. Get it?” George dismisses Peppy’s efforts on his behalf, once again declining to star in a talking picture. While Peppy is at the studio, George wanders around her house, coming into a room that contains all of his auctioned possessions that Peppy bought, using her butler to make the bids. George, his pride wounded, goes back to his burnt out apartment. He has a gun hidden there and he’s ready to pull the trigger just as Peppy, a very bad driver, crashes her car into a tree right outside the apartment, distracting George enough to abort his suicide attempt. The film ends with them filming an elaborate dance scene for their new picture.
Even though The Artist is technically a silent movie, sound is still prevalent throughout the film, so much so that one forgets the picture is for the most part silent. It is obvious that the film actually had a working script with dialogue the cast used while filming. We see them moving their lips though we cannot hear their lines. Pertinent pieces of dialogue are shone as subtitles, just like in the old silent films of yore. Ludovic Bource’s score, at times whimsical and dramatic depending on the action of the film, keeps the movie from seeming too quiet. There is one song with lyrics; “Pennies from Heaven,” plays in the background as Peppy’s rise to fame is documented during an onscreen montage. There are other instances of sounds. During a nightmare George has, everything around him including the sound of a chair being pushed back, a ringing telephone, a glass being put on a table, extras giggling as they walk by George on a deserted movie back lot, a feather landing on the pavement in front of him with a thundering boom, make a sound with the exception of him. This scene highlights George’s dilemma. He yearns to be onscreen again, he wants to be in the talkies desperately but is afraid the audience will judge him too harshly when they hear him talk. “No one wants to see me speak,” George laments. There is dialogue at the very end of the film; “Cut!” “Beautiful!” “Can you give me just one more?” Eleven words in total, two uttered by George which seem to explain why he was so reluctant to be in the talkies in the first place. And what these two words are, I shall never tell.