It is not often that a black and white silent film gets much attention in our day and age of 3D hype in which a film is considered ‘good’ if it surpasses every other in its graphics. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is unique in its style and refreshing in its simplicity. Presenting a story of a silent film actor, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), Hazanavicius reveals the fine line between fame and washed-up and the easy transition from one to the other. Despite being on the cusp of the “talkie” era, Valentin struggles to keep his name in lights, producing and starring in silent films.
Knowing that the film itself is silent, I entered the cinema thinking that I would have to read large paragraphs of dialogue. However, there is very little writing in the film. The actors, instead, communicate through facial expression. The film, much like the silent genre, is accompanied with music. Moreover, the opening scene nicely establishes that we are watching a silent film as it plays with our expectations. The initial scenes set up Valentin’s fame as he waits behind the scenes of the premiere of one of his films. The leading lady sits backstage as well and we see that she is not smitten with Valentin. As the film ends, we see the actors and production crew anticipating the audience’s applause, an applause that does come in an uproar that we, the audience, cannot hear. We assume that there is no applause, and this only adds to the tension that the actors are feeling. With the sound of the applause, Valentin steps on stage, in front of the screen and soaks in the praise from his audience, neglecting to share some of that fame with the leading lady. Instead, he gives some of that praise to his dog, a sidekick who accompanies him in his films and the leading lady storms out of the building.
Later we see Valentin meeting fans outside of the cinema, smiling for the cameras and showing-off in front of the audience. It is here where we meet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a struggling actress who has made her way to the film premiere, hoping to catch a glimpse of Valentin. She accidently bumps into Valentin, stealing some of the lime-light from him, and the tone changes instantly. The seemingly happy-go-lucky actor no longer smiles, but with a serious expression that implies that Miller has performed some grievous crime, stares at Miller and the crowd does the same. Breaking the ice, Valentin smiles again, the crowd follows, and Miller begins to have a little fun in front of the paparazzi, stealing a kiss from this leading man. This is the first of several encounters between Valentin and Miller as each reveals their spontaneity and enchanting hold over the audience. Working for the same production company, their run-ins become more frequent. Miller even has the chance to sneak into his room and here he draws a beauty mark on her face, a mark that leads to her fame.
We begin to see Valentin’s life fall apart as Hollywood makes the transition from the silent film to the talkie. With the collapse of his lustrous career, his personal life crumbles as well. In a series of breakfast table scenes between he and his wife, we see the increasing separation between the two. These table scenes compare only to Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles depicts husband and wife beginning their married life together sitting side by side at the table, then the table gets longer and longer and each takes his seat at the opposite end of the table. Eventually, we see Valentin’s complete breakdown as he sets his house on fire, his dog coming to his aid as he rushes out to call for an officer. Shortly after this scene, we see him re-enter the ruins of his house as he searches for a gun. He has reached his breaking point and is going to commit suicide. Miller arrives just in time to save him just as she has consistently attempted to save him from harm throughout the film. She even tries to boost his career.
A film that depicts the harshness of surviving Hollywood and the profound depression of the actor who experiences rejection is exceptional in its humour. Both Dujardin and Bejo are lively and energetic in their movement and expression, providing tour-de-force performances that convince one that they may well have walked out of the silent film era. Getting caught up in the American film production of Hollywood and the English sub-titles, we expect that Valentin’s persistence to remain in the silent-film business stems from his stubbornness to embrace change. He anticipates the transition, fearing the emergence of the talkie as this fear manifests in the form of a nightmare. In his dream, we see him in his room, moving objects around and as he moves the objects, they make a sound. He attempts to speak, but cannot, trying desperately to do so as he screams into a mirror, confirming nothing but the absence of a voice. However, the very intelligent ending reveals that he is in fact, French, and has an accent when speaking English. Much of the film toys with audience expectations (an audience accustomed to voice and sound effects). A film that reveals the hope, fame, excitement, fear, and despair of the film industry nicely pulls us in to embrace the charm of these characters, highlighting the universality of film, a medium that speaks to everyone even if it fails to present a voice.