Saturday, April 5, 2014

Going Vintage: The Artist

This post has actually been a long time coming. I viewed The Artist long before taking Alverno's foreign film course and have wanted to write about it ever since. The film itself possesses a distinct focus on the failing silent film regime and the advent of 'talkies' in the late 1920s and early '30s, as well as a closer examination of old v. new, classic acting v. innovative technology, and the subsequent fallout. As Peppy Miller said (through the use of a title card), "Make way for the young!"

Rated PG-13 for "a disturbing image and a crude gesture."
(Well, now you have to watch it, right?)

I've always enjoyed silent films, having been brought up nostalgic for any era I could not experience firsthand. A part of me was fascinated with early horror flicks like The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu, Lon Chaney's epic versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, and the surrealist/super-freaky Un chien Andalou. In addition, I got sucked into a variety of Charlie Chaplin films, John Barrymore's impression of Sherlock Holmes, Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, and Fritz Lang's science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis, just to name a few. (To be honest, I found The Birth of a Nation pretty dry—and overtly racist—though I concede that it features many groundbreaking camera techniques.)

Silent era actresses were another highlight of the genre, with timeless beauties like Mignon Anderson, Lillian Gish, Pauline Frederick and others. Let it be said, though, that love for or even experience with silent films are not prerequisites for the enjoyment of this film. The great thing about The Artist is that it pays homage to all of those original black & whites. Shadow play, reflections, opening credits, inter-titles, exaggerated body language and facial expressions all play a part. The talented and beautiful Bérénice Bejo does a wonderful job as leading lady Peppy Miller opposite Jean Dujardin's impressive portrayal of George Valantin. Plus, Uggie as 'The Dog'. He and Asta from The Thin Man and its sequels would totally have been best mates.

Actors playing directors, camera men, gaffers, clappers, and a really cute dog.
Slightly meta.

Parisian writer/director (and Bejo's spouse) Michel Hazanavicius did extraordinarily well with this film. The way he explores the failure of some silent movie stars to make the transition into talkies is heartbreaking when contrasted with the sometimes slapstick humour and touching romantic bits. Hazanavicus expertly breaks the fourth wall when (spoiler!) Valantin has a nightmare of a world with sound. He becomes hyperaware of it all; a falling feather hits ground and resonates like a bass drum as the actor silently screams and wakes up. Here, the audience is pulled into reality. The scene acts to remind them that it is not just any ordinary silent film they are viewing. This happens again right before the end credits roll when (another spoiler!), after Miller and Valantin complete a musical production number, the diegetic sound is suddenly turned on and the audience can hear that the two actors are out of breath.

The director calls "Cut!" and the studio boss—played by none other than John Goodman—exclaims "Perfect! Beautiful...could you give me just one more?" Everyone hears Dujardin's voice for the very first time: "With pleasure." Those on set prepare to do another take as the 'actual' camera pulls backwards before resting at an overhead angle, recording from above. When everyone is ready, the director yells "Action!" Roll credits, cue big band music: perfection. When I first saw this scene in the cinema, every sound was acute. There was a photoplay-esque soundtrack throughout the entirety of the film, but finally being able to hear the amplified and synchronized sound had a major effect nonetheless. Bringing the roaring twenties into the 2010s has never been more well done.

Look how full of whimsy it is! And tragedy! Gah, my heart!

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