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Shadow Play: The Artist, by Michel Hazanavicius.

February 17, 2012

When sound was introduced to the cinema in 1927 most people in the industry regarded it as a mere novelty, the appeal of which would soon wear off. Michael Powell recalls that Alfred Hitchcock was alone among those he knew in seeing that the talkies were here to stay. This attitude was not simply resistance to change or contempt for the giddy tastes of the general public. Serious film-makers felt that sound would reduce the artistic potential of the young medium: Charlie Chaplin, for instance, did not make a sound film until 1940. While, as Cnut demonstrated, it might be fruitless to attempt to order back the incoming tide, this does not mean that they were wrong. Though only a few decades old, cinema was beginning to reach a level of sophistication and artistic expression which made it the seventh art. Contemporary with The Jazz Singer were the exhilarating expressionism of FW Murnau’s Sunrise and the austere formalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, two films which rank as high as the best films of the eighty or so years since. Sound did reduce Hollywood cinema to a series of talking heads or brash musicals and it was not until Orson Welles that a really visual art form re-emerged. In part this was due to the fact that dialogue made story-telling easier so less visual imagination was required and in part due to the restrictions of recording sound. It was not possible for some time to use the fabulously mobile camera that Murnau exploited to such great effect and many films became static and what we would now think of as ‘televisual’.

One of Hollywood’s more appealing habits is self-mythologisation. The genre of movies-about-movies is surprisingly rich, ranging from the romance of The Barefoot Contessa to the satire of The Player. Probably the two greatest films of the genre, Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain are concerned with the arrival of sound and the disruption it caused to the industry. The former is distinctly ambivalent in its attitude while the latter celebrates progress whole-heartedly. Michel Hazanavicius’ film, The Artist, fits into this sub-genre perfectly with the unusual distinction of being a silent film about the arrival of sound. This gives the film an odd sense of being out of time, as though it were predicting the future, rather like a baroque opera about World War One.

As a pastiche (in the non-pejorative sense) The Artist is near perfect. There is barely a frame in the film which would not pass for the genuine article. The sets, costumes, hairstyles etc are entirely convincing and even the dog seems to belong to a breed reserved for black and white movies. If anything gives the game away it is that The Artist is too good. For one thing the film is not covered in scratches and there are no frames missing. Inter-titles are used much more sparingly than in many silent movies, which often grind to a halt during dialogue scenes and seem to anticipate an audience with the reading speed of a six-year old. The editing is much sharper and so the scenes flow more smoothly. The performances are ideally pitched between an expressive mime and the more naturalistic style we expect today. Acting techniques have changed as much as film grammar in the decades since the silent era and it is to the credit of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo that they are able to play to both eras, as it were. The film avoids the more overt and clichéd symbolism of the time while retaining enough to convince. The score, likewise, maintains a balance between brashness and effectiveness.

What marks The Artist apart from Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain is that it depicts the coming of sound as a problem for a male star rather than a female one (Norma Desmond and Lina Lamont in those films). In fact it sets up a series of oppositions between male and female, silence and sound (or speech), past and future which the protagonists must negotiate. As the title implies, The Artist is about an actor who has too high an opinion of himself and is accustomed to his male privilege. His fall from prominence and the concurrent rise of Peppy threatens his sense of identity as a man. Alone in his dressing room, Peppy wears his costume in a scene which prefigures her buying his effects at auction. The earlier scene is sweet and funny but the scene in which Valentin discovers his possessions in her mansion most resembles a role-reversal of Bluebeard and prompts his great crisis. Valentin has found that his identity has been reduced to the shadow thrown on a screen by the light of an empty projector. It is only by accepting the help and love of a woman, renouncing an identity based on male superiority and splendid isolation and entering a relationship in which he is not dominant that our hero can move into the future. And it is through music and dance that this can be achieved. The one transcends speech and the other (at least traditionally) is an activity which requires cooperation between the sexes. Seeing the talkies as female is quite accurate because women were the ones who gained most from the arrival of sound. The 1930s were the golden age of romantic comedy in Hollywood. The screwball heroines like Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers and, most notably, Katharine Hepburn were witty, wordy, wise and effortlessly the equals of their male counterparts. It is in these films that Hollywood has come closest to portraying anything close to gender equality.

It is, however, its formal qualities that make The Artist outstanding. By being denied sound the film relies on visual wit and flair to tell its story. It is a corrective to those who mistake being cinematic for reliance on panoramic landscapes or special effects and a reminder that widescreen is a most unsatisfactory and inhuman ratio in which to film. Lastly, the surprising success of the film reminds us of one very important thing which was lost with the invention of sound. Silent cinema was a universal medium. It effortlessly transcended linguistic and cultural barriers and helped to make the world smaller. Charlie Chaplin achieved a level of fame far beyond the hopes even of Bollywood stars today for precisely this reason. With sound the barriers returned and cinema lost its potential to unite the world. Is it a coincidence that the arrival of sound was followed so swiftly by the rise of fascism in Europe? The Artist is a reminder that, however much it may be used to warmonger, cinema can still be a unifying force.


From → Cinema, Review

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