A “new” silent film. It almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is most definitely what we have here. Following a hiatus of some 84 years (give or take a couple of Chaplin masterpieces; a handful of mid-1930s jewels from Japan; the odd avant-garde breakthrough; the umpteenth revival of METROPOLIS; and a particularly unforgiveable monstrosity courtesy of Mel Brooks) silent filmmaking, or to be more precise, silent film exhibition makes a triumphant and seriously long overdue return to the mainstream. And we have missed you. Oh, how we’ve missed you. Please don’t leave it so long next time around.
Michel Hazanavicius’ glorious hymn to the halcyon days of pre-sound era Hollywood has joy and invention written all over it. Furthermore, his empathy with the art of silent movie-making arrives as a total revelation. The photography, framing, choreography, lighting and editing are spookily on the button. Timing and rhythm are paramount in silent filmmaking (a high-wire balancing act that was a mightily difficult thing to pull off even in the genius-fuelled days of 1927/8) so his mastery and command of a resurrected and long ignored medium is frankly astonishing. He really does “get it”, positively encouraging imagination and creativity to fill each corner of every frame. Like the closing shot of a Chaplin movie, Hazanavicius takes us by the hand and leads us into a luminous realm of cinematic wonder and romance: painting with swathes of shimmering chiaroscuro, effortlessly spanning the ages, quickening our hearts, and stirring echoes of Clara Bow and Rene Clair along the way. No mean feat.
From the very start we are treated to some gloriously old-fashioned opening titles, and it’s all in the proper and much lamented Academy ratio too! In next to no time we’re introduced to silent screen matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who’s so successful that he’s taken to believing his own hype and has developed a decidedly high opinion of himself. All too eager to please, you get the impression that when not in front of the camera he spends his remaining waking hours standing in front of the mirror. He has the world at his feet. But then, with a sense of tragic inevitability, the dreaded microphone begins to make its presence felt. Times they are a-changin’.
Like all good directors, Hazanavicius hasn’t consciously set out to dazzle us with stylistic flourishes and technical bravado. The camera has always been in its element when capturing subtlety and nuance (all of those tear-stained glances and little bits of business) and even though it’s a cliché far older than cinema itself, pictures really do speak a thousand words. There’s something about a wordless image that, perhaps due to its purity and simplicity, seems altogether more profound; creating vivid and everlasting moments that have a unique way of searing themselves on to our mind’s eye as we commit them to memory. Indeed, when it comes to THE ARTIST, it’s debatable just who is intended to be “the hero”. Is it George? Or is it in fact Silent Cinema itself?
Dujardin’s charming performance is a pitch perfect object lesson in silent film acting, offering layer upon layer of true and honest emotion solely through his face and movements. So winning is he in the lead role that I’m willing to put a sizeable bet on the fact that he was plucked straight off the MGM back-lot circa 1926 and took a ride in the TARDIS to the present day. The ghosts of Ronald Colman, John Gilbert and William Powell loom large but Dujardin is utterly convincing and very much his own man, bringing his own inimitable style and sparkle to create a character of depth, humour and elegance. A man who beneath his showbiz veneer, turns out to be all too human.
A quick nod in the direction of Ludovic Bource’s toe-tappingly stupendous score. Sassy, sexy and sensitive in equal measure, it’s a shame we’re not able to hear it performed “live” in front of the screen (they sound like one helluva band!). But, taking into account the times we live in – when “A” stands for “Austerity” rather than for “Arts Funding” – perhaps this is one silent movie tradition which our perpetual economic Armageddon couldn’t quite realistically hope to replicate.
And then of course there’s George loyal friend and colleague: Uggy the Terrier. I refuse to sign off without granting this most gifted of thespians an honourable mention. Give that dog a bone… or an Oscar… or something that he can get his teeth into so that he can enjoy a good ol’ chew. Move aside WAR HORSE, this is a complete shoe-in for the finest 4-legged performance of the year: undoubtedly a “shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament”. Uggy, I will be watching your future career with great interest.
It would be all too easy to become precious and misty-eyed behind those rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to (re)viewing THE ARTIST. [As I myself have already been thoroughly guilty of!]. But it would be wrong to merely see this as something light, fluffy and inconsequential. Make no mistake: this is filmmaking of a very high order. When shooting a silent film there’s forever the danger of becoming far too literal. You really have to combat the urge to “spell it out”. It’s all too easy to slip up and fall foul of slapdash-slapstick and exaggerated and unnecessary gestures. So it’s to Hazanavicius’ immense credit that by putting his trust in both his camera and his actors, THE ARTIST at no stage falls into this trap. He has succeeded with infusing it with so much that feels fresh and original (and yes, even modern) that his film has well and truly earned its spurs, fully deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as so many of its illustrious predecessors.
It’s far from perfect (thank goodness, how boring would that be?). There are perhaps a few too many homages paid to past cinematic gems; the most jarring being the baffling and perplexing use of Bernard Herrmann’s “Scene d’Amour” love theme from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO – most odd. Plus, like an annoying itch you can’t quite reach to scratch, one nagging complaint is that you can’t help wishing that Hazanavicius had had more confidence of his convictions and played the whole film as a straight silent (melo)drama without veering off every so often into postmodern, self-knowing territory as the very film itself (imitating George’s mental state) struggles to come to terms with the unstoppable juggernaut that would soon sound the death knell of the silent screen.
However, it seems churlish to be overly critical of a film which has almost single-handedly brought back the silent movie to modern audiences. Many of whom may never have had the pleasure of viewing a silent film before. If the very essence of cinema – and particularly silent cinema – is speaking the language of desire then THE ARTIST deserves all of the plaudits that have been heading its way. And from a purely personal standpoint, when you hold something so dear it’s comforting to know that the baton has been taken up by such talented and respectful hands.
One thing we can say with certainty is that this is no retrograde step. Silent film is far tougher and more robust than many people give it credit for. The sophistication of the art was at its zenith in 1927/8 and it was well and truly cut down in its prime. In actual fact, from the point of view of suspension of disbelief it could well be argued that it’s modern CGI cinema which has taken a step back. There’s something about “knowing” that what is there before you is “real” that kinda gives the cynic which dwells inside all of us permission to lose ourselves completely in what’s up there on the screen.
Coming as it does hot on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s enchanting HUGO, THE ARTIST has brought about a most unexpected – and very welcome – resurgence in curiosity of early cinema. Both films achieve the delicate task of marrying the old with the new, the mechanical with the digital and somehow making it all become a seamless whole. Whether or not they reawaken a sustained interest in silent filmmaking remains to be seen but the odds of this ushering in the second-coming of silent cinema are, at best, unlikely. Perhaps the true test of whether this possible “renaissance” of silent filmmaking is here to stay will be if a director has the skill, the ambition, the grounding and most of all the balls to make a silent film set squarely in the present, thereby offering themselves not the slightest opportunity of being able to hide behind the safety net of 1920s decadence, classically soft-focused black ‘n’ white photography, or those expertly trimmed waxed moustaches; a world that we can all recognise and relate to without the distance of time or nostalgia to cloud our critical eye. Silent cinema is more than capable of being just as pertinent and relevant in today’s contemporary surroundings and I very much look forward to seeing a project of this kind come to fruition. One hopes that an immediate off-shoot of their success will be to fuel their audience’s desire to seek out the Real McCoy. In today’s era of preservation and restoration, there truly is an embarrassment of riches out there; a monumental oeuvre ready and waiting for both new fans and old to marvel at their brilliance and beauty.