Monday, January 16, 2012


Seventy-five years after Charles Chaplin's last stand, silent film appeared to find its avenger in the form of Michel Hazanavicius, a French director best known in America, if at all, for his two OSS 117 spy-parody films. In The Artist, Hazanavicius hasn't just made a new silent film, but dares to make a silent film (in black and white) about the coming of sound. His specific subject is a fictional silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who commits career suicide by refusing to speak on screen. Valentin is a carefully imagined archetypal figure, designed to be evocative of a number of movie stars. He most closely resembles Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who starred in dashing adventure films and defiantly produced a silent film in 1929 (albeit with introductions to the several acts spoken by him) in which he enacted, as Valentin does, his own death. But Fairbanks made talking pictures for the remainder of his career and never faced the financial ruin Valentin suffers. The identification is so close that Hazanavicius edits footage of Dujardin into the Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro to suggest that it was Valentin's film instead.  Yet the character's name also suggests one of the great what-ifs of movie history: what if Rudolph Valentino had not died prematurely and had to face the challenge of sound. Valentino was transitioning to swashbuckling fare at the end of his life and thus could also be seen as a model for Valentin. But Valentin has his own distinct screen persona. He seems to play the same Fantomas-like masked and top-hatted character in a series of spy films (A Russian Affair, A German Affair), has his own pet dog as a sidekick, and can dance well enough not to embarrass himself in live appearances. He's apparently the top star of Kinograph Pictures, a studio behind the curve on sound. Studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) doesn't even suggest that Valentin talk until 1929, more than a year after The Jazz Singer opened. But mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was similarly reticent in real life, not releasing the first talkers of Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo and Buster Keaton until 1930. Zimmer shows Valentin a clearly though not audibly disastrous sound test by his Lina Lamontish regular co-star (performing a scene from Romeo & Juliet a la John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in The Hollywood Revue of 1929), but before George can laugh his way out of the screening room, Zimmer tells him his turn is next. George refuses outright, claiming that he doesn't need to talk to retain his audience. He breaks with Kinograph over the matter (echoing Louise Brooks's estrangement with Paramount over her refusal to do sound retakes for The Canary Murder Case) and strikes out as an independent producer-director. His Tears of Love, an African safari adventure with a quicksand finish, is a box-office disaster. That may be because no one wants to see silent movies (though Chaplin would disprove this with City Lights in 1931), but it may be because his picture is opening against The Beauty Spot, the talking debut of his protege Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Whatever the cause, the stock market crash proves the coup de grace. George loses all the money he didn't sink into Tears of Love, and his continued refusal to talk renders him useless to Hollywood. By 1931 his wife has left him, he's had to fire his doggedly loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) and auction off most of his personal effects. He keeps the dog and copies of his films, but burns them (not the dog) in a fit of rage after watching his Zorro footage. Hospitalized after the dog summons a cop in classic melodramatic fashion, George has hit rock bottom.

Re-enter Peppy Miller, once merely a fan who parlayed an accidental encounter with her idol into an extra job at Kinograph and shot to stardom from there. She has never ceased idolizing George and has helped him out behind the scenes, buying much of his estate to keep him afloat and preserving it as a personal museum in her own mansion. She finds George at the hospital and brings him home to care for him. But when he eventually discovers the shrine and realizes how dependent he's become on her, his pride drives him toward a rash act, while Peppy drives recklessly to his rescue. Can she save his life and revive his career?...

In her dotage, Kim Novak has incited a small controversy over The Artist. She has equated Hazanavicius's use of some of Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo, her great performance for Alfred Hitchcock, with a rape of her "body of work." Her complaint is a matter of aesthetic ethics only, since Herrmann is duly acknowledged in the end credits. Of course, in silent movie days, if the studio didn't provide an official score or cue sheet it was up to the theater orchestra or lone pianist to score the picture on the fly, often resorting to familiar themes that hopefully fit the mood of the picture .Hazanavicius and composer Ludovic Bource are doing no different -- and the Vertigo music is appropriate. It scores the scene when George discovers his stuff in Peppy's mansion, and the music sells the sense that Peppy has been trying -- hoping, really -- to transform George into the person he used to be. She doesn't exactly make him wear his old clothes or cut his hair differently, but Hitchcock fans should get the general idea. Vertigo plays on during the climax, quite effectively, as Peppy careens through traffic while George contemplates ending it all. The suspense of this scene hearkens back to D. W. Griffith rather than Hitchcock, and the resolution hearkens back to Mack Sennett, but the Herrmann music has inspired Hazanavicius to stage and edit a terrific melodramatic climax, and that should be justification enough. Novak argues that a good filmmaker shouldn't need to use another film's music to achieve his effects, but that horse left the barn a long time ago, and it's not as if Hazanavicius needed to make a silent film in 2011 to recount the coming of sound, either. He paid to use Vertigo, and that gives him sufficient artistic license.

So confident is Hazanavicius in his silent pastiche that he can throw off a Hitchcock homage as almost an afterthought. His technical success has been overstated somewhat, some reviewers reacting as if The Artist as a whole looks exactly like a 1927 movie. Maybe I've misunderstood what they meant, but since the film covers a period of at least four years beyond 1927, there'd be little point to making the whole thing look like the opening year. I agree, however, if the point is that when he shows us footage from the films within the film, whether fluid late silents or stodgy early talkies, they usually look like authentic products of their times. Hazanavicius is proficient at both narrative and pastiche, but his film ultimately betrays some ambivalence about the silence it celebrates. The Artist is a vindication of silent film only insofar as the director proves that an ingenious, engaging film can be made silent in modern times. But it doesn't argue for the superiority of silence over sound. George blusters against sound, but it becomes clear soon enough that there's no theory behind his protest, just defensiveness. But what is he defending against? What is he afraid of? The end of the film appears to give a simple answer, but I'm not so sure. To explain, I have to spoil things in the next paragraph. Feel free to skip that and come back for the finale.

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The Artist is maddeningly coy about why George refuses to talk on screen. It even plays with tying his resistance to emotional communication problems in his personal life. In an idiomatically perfect moment for a foreign filmmaker, Hazanavicius has George's wife tell him, "We need to talk," in a scene charged with multiple meanings. Does George suffer from some failure to open up, as his resistance to Peppy's ministrations also suggests? Is there an essential disconnect between his star persona and the real man, as the Vertigo business hints? The film seems to offer a prosaic explanation. Remembering George's skill as a dancer, Peppy suggests that Kinograph rehire him as her partner in a musical (echoing Garbo's demand that M-G-M cast her erstwhile lover John Gilbert, arguably Hollywood's most famous martyr to sound, as her leading man in Queen Christina). The dancers tear the house down in a rousing tap number that seems to set them up as a surrogate Rogers and Astaire. It ends with them audibly panting from exhaustion and the punch line of a request for another take. Confident once more, George replies, with the voice of the French actor who plays him, "Wizz pleasure." Is that it? Has he refused to talk all this time because he's a foreigner with a heavy accent? Then why has neither he nor anyone else at the studio, nor his wife, nor his protege, nor his chauffeur, -- what the hell: nor his dog -- noted this fact before??? A silent movie doesn't mean that people don't explain themselves to each other; that's what the title cards are for. In fact, a film from the silent era might give the game away by spelling out George's lines in dialect, "zee" instead of "the" and so on. There's really no good reason for Hazanavicius to withhold this information from the audience -- which leads me to wonder whether the denouement is as cut and dried as it looks. Is Dujardin's accented speech a punchline, or merely incidental. Is Dujardin's actual speaking voice the voice we're supposed to imagine George Valentin having? Is a point possibly being made about what's lost in sound, when Dujardin can't convince us once he speaks that he's just a regular fellow American, after he had convinced us before, or given us no reason to doubt it? There need not be a single answer to these questions, since The Artist really means to be playful about the whole business and succeeds wonderfully at that.

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Besides being an entertainingly evocative portrait of an era, The Artist may also advance a theory of cinematic evolution. Hazanavicius implies that something of the silent spirit survives, ironically enough, in the musical. George Valentin's existence is thoroughly scored and he's a dancer of sorts. Silent film liberates movement from natural sound and opens it to different kinds of choreography. George's nightmare induced by the prospect of talking pictures is full of more or less natural noise, but two things are conspicuously missing: George's own voice -- he imagines himself trying to talk but failing -- and music. His last chance for redemption comes when he's cast in a musical, where he'll be a dancer more than a singer. As many people now realize, silent film was never silent. It was almost always accompanied by music. Hazanvicius may believe that film set to music preserves something of the essence of the silent aesthetic. I don't necessarily agree, but it's an interesting proposition to close a film on and it closes this movie on a tentatively redemptive note.

The film looks and sounds terrific. Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, and he also illustrates the different look of late silents and early talkies quite convincingly. The production design is practically impeccable. The lead French performers are engaging -- Bejo (aka Mme. Hazanavicius) especially, and the Americans have been well cast for their expressive faces. The dog Uggie is a phenomenon; he makes you wonder why George couldn't still make a living loaning his pet to the studios in the age of Rin Tin Tin.  Overall, it's a film that'll keep you guessing whether it'll end up tragic or triumphant -- either way would be just as appropriate -- and my quibble about the finish is just that. I'm not yet prepared to call The Artist the best film of 2011 -- I still have a lot of contenders to see -- but I'm more willing to say that it's that year's most entertaining film for me. If it wins more awards I won't complain. 

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