Charles and I had planned to go to the movies on Tuesday night, and though I might have preferred a major-studio 3-D blockbuster like Tintin or Hugo, the film he picked out was an absolute marvel: The Artist, the much-ballyhooed modern-day silent movie made in France about the final days of silent films and the rise of the talkies. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius (an odd name even in France!) — imdb.com credits him with “scenario and dialogue” even though the film contains no audible dialogue (“scenario and titles” would have been more accurate and more in line with the historical theme of the film) — the film stars Jean Dujardin, a tall, rather beefy actor with a striking (and entirely appropriate) resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. He plays George Valentin (the last name an obvious reference to another silent-screen legend, Rudolph Valentino), a silent star specializing in action films — in the opening he’s being tortured by a Stroheim-esque villain who’s trying, according to the titles, to force him to talk (the word “talk” appears quite often in the titles and takes on an ironic double meaning throughout), a sequence which is eventually revealed to be a scene from his current film.
In his next production, he’s called upon to do a scene taking place at a dance and a young actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bero), plays one of his dancing partners, is only briefly in the scene with him, but nonetheless makes an impression on him — and he on her — even though he’s already married to a rather bitchy blonde woman, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller), who’s also the owner of the giant villa he’s living in. Then talkies come in and Peppy Miller gets discovered by the head of the Kinograph Studios, where Valentin has been working, and becomes a giant star of early musicals (I suspect her character name “Peppy Miller” was derived from Peggy Pepper, the character Marion Davies played in the marvelous 1928 film Show People, in which she played an aspiring actress who crashes Hollywood, becomes a major star in comedies, then tries to go “serious” and flops). Valentin haughtily refuses to make a sound film, claiming that he is an “artist” and not a mere entertainer (a reference that provides the title of the film), and leaves Kinograph to make a silent film, Tears of Love, with his own money. Needless to say, Tears of Love is a major flop — and despite Valentin’s arrogant claim of being an “artist,” from what we see of it (an ending in which Valentin’s character drowns in quicksand despite the best efforts of his on-screen girlfriend to pull him out again) it looks terrible, and terrible in a lowest-common-denominator rather than an “artistic” way.
The flop costs most of Valentin’s money, his wife leaves him and throws him out of the house (she writes her kiss-off note on the back of one of his publicity photos, which she’s vandalized by drawing a comic moustache and glasses on it, and to add insult to injury she adds a P.S. in which she tells him to go see Peppy Miller’s latest film because it’s surprisingly good) and he ends up in a seedy but not absolutely derelict living space — it’s still a detached home rather than an apartment, and he has enough money left he can afford a refrigerator (an expensive novelty in the early 1930’s) rather than having to rely on an icebox — attended by his faithful butler/chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell, son of early-talkie director John Cromwell) even though he hasn’t been able to afford to pay Clifton for a year. (He eventually fires him and sends him packing to take a job that can pay him, and Clifton ends up — natch — in a similar position with Peppy Miller.) And since he’s a silent star on the skids, Valentin spends most of his time drinking and watching his old movies (though the clip we see is actually from Douglas Fairbanks’ first costume film, the 1920 Mark of Zorro) until he gets disgusted with what’s left of his life, burns the prints of his old movies (except for one film can he clutches which turns out to be the reel containing his dance scene with the then-unknown Peppy Miller), gets out a pistol and is about to commit suicide with it — Hazanavicius even gives us a shot of Valentin’s face with him sticking the gun into his mouth, then it cuts to a title, “Bang!,” only we soon see the “Bang!” came not from the gun but from Peppy Miller’s car.
She had driven to Valentin’s place to save him and had crashed her car on a tree in front of his house; eventually she gets to him and offers him a comeback, since she’s made an ultimatum to the studio head (John Goodman) that she won’t make any more movies unless the man she once loved (though nothing actually ever happened between them off screen!) is in them with her. Since Valentin still refuses to talk, Miller hits on the idea of having them do a dance number — and though the film remains dialogue-free, the final sequence is the first part of the film that actually offers natural sound: the music is heard off a playback machine and we get the normal noises of film production as we see the scene in the movie-within-the-movie being shot. Plot-wise, The Artist owes considerably more to the behind-the-scenes depictions of Hollywood and show business generally in such early talkies as What Price Hollywood? (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and the first A Star Is Born (1937) than anything made during the silent era, as well as real-life incidents in the lives of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Charlie Chaplin (though City Lights, the self-financed silent film Chaplin made in 1931 in defiance of the dominance of the talkies, was a major hit instead of a major flop).
Technically it’s a silent film rethought for the modern era — it doesn’t really look like a film from the late 1920’s even though the recreation of the era is virtually flawless (I noticed only two anachronisms, Valentin’s record player — a 1910-style exposed acoustic horn attached to an electric turntable of a type used in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s — and a montage of Hollywood magazines featuring Peppy Miller, in one of which she’s called a “superstar,” a term that didn’t come into common use until the 1970’s though Andy Warhol had coined it a decade earlier) — and though I wish Hazanavicius had used the color-tinting device (which not only would have made it look more authentic but would have salved the disinclination of many modern-day moviegoers to sit through a movie entirely in black-and-white), in general he did a marvelous job evoking the techniques of late silent-era moviemaking without slavishly copying them. The transition from silent to sound has become one of the most legendary — and misreported — eras in movie history; I’ve read B.S. like one writer’s assertion that none of the major silent-era stars carried over into sound (what about Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, John and Lionel Barrymore, William Powell?) and the common myth that John Gilbert (who provided much of the real-life basis for George Valentin’s character) flopped in talkies because he had an unrecordable voice. (His voice was perfectly fine; from the Gilbert talkies I’ve seen his problem was that he never really learned how to act with his voice, how to modulate his lines and speak in different tones of voice to convey emotions.)
The Artist is a marvelous story, neatly balanced between the reality and the myth, and the acting is just stylized enough to be believable as silent-screen playing without going whole hog into the ridiculously exaggerated gestures and expressions most people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish in their lives think all silent films were acted like. It’s a film that works on virtually every level imaginable: a coherent story that makes us like and identify with the leads, excellent direction by Hazanavicius (I especially liked his nervy use of actual records of the period, notably Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp,” and later — a campy run-through on “Pennies from Heaven” with vocal and piano by an uncredited Rose “Chi Chi” Murphy; ironically it was the second night in a row Charles and I had seen a movie that deliberately used a bad version of “Pennies from Heaven”, since Elf had used Louis Prima’s version to show the attraction between its romantic leads: in both cases these cheerily campy versions of the song worked far better than any of the genuinely great records of it — Bing Crosby’s, Billie Holiday’s, Frank Sinatra’s — would have), an appropriate musical score by Ludovic Bource, cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman that (like the direction) evoked the silent era without trying to copy it, and an overall air of homage without descending into pastiche. It’s a movie that deserves all the success it gets!