Back in early 2012, when The Artist (2011) was the talk of the cinematic world, Patz and I tried to make it to a matinée showing at Walla Walla’s Grand Cinemas. When we arrived, the theater was closed. I’d gotten the times wrong.
Now—a year later—I’ve finally seen The Artist.
In what follows I try my hand as a film critic, employing some of that fancy film-analysis vocab that came with my French degree.
*BEWARE of SPOILERS*
The Artist is a silent film about the power play between boisterous words and meaning-filled gestures. This tension, reflected through the plot and, more strikingly, the technical elements of the film is wrapped up in one man’s struggle to swallow his pride, overcome fear, and adapt to a changing world.
The film opens with a mise en abyme—a silent film within our silent film—that immediately introduces the story’s central conflict between speaking and silence. Our first image post-opening credits is that of main character and acteur muet George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) projected on the big screen where the nameless character he’s portraying is being tortured for information. “Je ne dirai rien!! Je ne parlerai pas!!!” / “I won’t say anything!! I won’t talk!” George stubbornly refuses.
The torture continues and he keeps his silent word before being tossed—practically at death’s door—into a gloomy cell, only to be rescued by his trusty canine companion.
And just like that, these glimpsed moments of the film within the film foreshadow all that follows: A man driven to the point of no return by his obstinate refusal to talk in a world that increasingly wants to listen to spoken words, tinkling laughter and rushed footsteps.
It takes roughly a third of the film before “talkies” come crashing loudly into George’s stable and silent reality. After a scene in which his producer (John Goodman) presents him with the noisy future, the viewer gets a subtle shock to the ear: After 29 minutes and 15 seconds of exclusive son extradiégétique (sound that is exterior to the action, like grandiose orchestra music) we hear our first son diégétique (sound tied to the action that can be heard by the characters). And George definitely hears it, too—the deafening clink of his water glass as he sets it on his dressing room table.
We hear sound after sound: the water glass, the ring of a telephone, the incessant barking of George’s dog, the clatter of his chair as he tips it over in a frightened frenzy, his hurried footsteps as he races to the door. But when he screams: silence.
Sound has arrived and George is powerless—unable to stop it but also unable to add his voice to the din.
George wakes from the nightmare scene and his life crumbles around him.
Holding fast to silent films, he finds himself on his way out of the changing industry as the girl he bumped into at the beginning of the film is on the rise. They cross paths and pause on the stairway of the studio—George descending, Peppy (Bérénice Bejo) climbing ever higher. “Peut être parce que je parle. Et on m’entend.” / “Maybe it’s because I talk. And people hear me,” she offers later as an excuse for her stardom.
At home George’s marriage crumbles. His wife is unhappy, and when she tries to talk to him, George won’t respond. “Pourquoi refuses-tu de parler?” / “Why won’t you say anything?” she cries desperately.
Finally we find George, alone and destitute in a shabby apartment with his head in his hands.
And then, suddenly, with a gun in his hand.
Peppy arrives just in the nick of time. The bang was her car crashing into the tree outside. When she finds George inside, they communicate with everything but words: a furrowed brow, a shrug of the shoulders, a weak smile. This scene, the most charged of the film, passes in complete silence—no audible sobs, no spoken words, no climactic music. And yet, it speaks the loudest.
Set in his ways and afraid of change, George refuses to embrace the future. He has rejected the new world of sound film and feels it has also rejected him. “Personne ne veut me voir parler.” / “No one wants to see me talk,” he says to Peppy when she proposes they collaborate on a new film. George is stubborn, yes, but also frightened. He thus speaks to all of us faced with daunting change and challenges we’re unsure we can overcome.
On a larger scale The Artist speaks of other rapidly changing industries that must either adapt or cease to be. It mourns the loss of their traditions but doesn’t necessarily condemn the advancements that take their place.
Ultimately The Artist proposes a compromise—a tap dance that relies on the sound of shoes on a stage as much as on wildly swinging arms and exaggerated facial expressions. And it follows that compromise with the first spoken word of the film: “Perfect!”
Nothing is perfect, but this film comes close.