SONIA BRAND-FISHER: Watching Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 silent film, “The Artist,” made me feel as if I were in a cathedral of cinema history. A cathedral is a place, mostly silent except for a few camera clicks and prayers, that is simultaneously meant to teach and inspire those who seek spiritual refuge from the rapidly changing world. Film is a medium that has undergone revelations and revolutions, represented in the stories told by movie stars, whose faces we recognize as quickly, if not quicker than, any apostle. “The Artist” allowed for me to sit in the theatre and gaze up at these figures who were re-enacting the turbulence that was the transition to the talking pictures. Icons in their own right, both the film’s protagonists, George Valentin and Peppy Miller, framed in the stained glass light of a silver screen, act as intercessors between the audience and cinema’s history in a film that could only have been made in 2011.
The forced conversion of the silent cinema star, George Valentin, to talking pictures (let alone spoken word) thematically drives the film from start to finish. His first words on screen are in a scene where he is being tortured in early sci-fi “Metropolis”-esque style while starring in one of his films. Valentin screams “I won’t talk!” while the mad scientists are screaming for him to “Speak!” The multi-layered metaphorical references to sound and speech throughout “The Artist” can be said to come back to this opening scene where George Valentin is watching himself being tortured in larger-than-life form behind the screen at the film’s premiere. The glamour of his screen persona mesmerizes the audience while Valentin stands, mesmerized by himself, in front of his temperamental co-stars backstage. Valentin is a man who loves his life, and loves cinema just the way it is. He sees no reason to be any different off-screen than he is on-screen, even if that means not participating in the changing world around him. Later in the film, Valentin shouts at a room full of producers at a sound-test, “If that’s the future, you can have it!” while still wearing the costume from a dated period piece that he is filming, silently, in the same studio.
To help the audience understand Valentin’s struggle with history’s first drastic change in film making style, countless film techniques and specific references to films that were made after the silent era emerge. The sketchy beauty of silent cinema’s film technique does remain constant in scenes where as many faces as one can fit jump like popcorn around the frame at the premiere, or in the more lonely and hazy shots of Valentin and Miller deep in their own thoughts. However, one thing that “The Artist” has to its advantage that other films of the 1910s-20s didn’t have is almost a century of film history to draw upon that enhances the modernity of this silent film while still representing early cinema’s grainy authenticity. A soundtrack bizarrely reminiscent of Hitchcock’s score for “Vertigo” plays as Miller leaves her mansion at the film’s climax to rescue Valentin. Valentin’s little dog puts one in mind of Nick and Nora’s dog, Asta, in all of “The Thin Man” films. Miller telling her boyfriend to “Take me home. I want to be alone,” allows her to directly quote Greta Garbo, and everyone from Groucho Marx to Nancy Carroll who has ever parodied that line in film history. The characters of John Goodman as the nervous movie producer and his two feuding headline stars pays homage to “Singin’ in the Rain,” a film that is arguably a mass audience’s only real understanding of the transition from silent films to talkies. Valentin’s solitary rampage to destroy his apartment reminds us of Charles Foster Kane’s destruction of some of his rooms in “Citizen Kane” at the lowest point of his own loneliness that is shot, like Valentin’s tirade, from a claustrophobic low angle. The list goes on. The iconography, like passages in scripture, refers us to past achievements and failures that further help us contemplate the current situation in the lives of the protagonists, as well as in the current life of cinema.
“The Artist,” for multiple reasons, is the best modern film that I have seen in years. My undying adoration of silent film and the aesthetic majesty of the 1920s aside, this film is a deeply needed spiritual intervention for the modern film audience. I am not a religious person, yet the power that one feels in the echoing silent beauty of a gigantic cathedral is undeniable. The majority of the modern film audience might not be versed in the often distancing, often bizarre world of the silents, but it is impossible to watch this film and not feel deeply moved on a level very different from even the best films made today. It’s something about the silence of it. You feel more connected to the characters and their pathos because so much of their struggle is an isolated one. “The Artist” felt like a more realistic, and yet cinematic, representation of true despair and pure joy, which in real life is often muted, complex, and in its own way, very beautiful.