I made my first silent films in 1984 (on actual film) and have made several forays into the form over the ensuing decades — a new batch is in the works in conjunction with my new book Chain of Fools (due out September 2012). This of course makes me both the best and the worst sort of audience for something like The Artist and if I was the only one, I’d feel bad about it. A pre-screening canvas of my friends about the film proved to be a catalog of nitpicking. A graphic designer friend said the font in the titles was all wrong. A silent film scholar friend said, no, the fonts were correct, but the kerning and justification were all off. A friend who’s a fashion historian said the costumes drove her crazy. Me, I picked out an airplane that was from the wrong period, and thought much of the music and some of the camerawork seemed anachronistic.
Ah, but for what? There’s an object lesson here for those of us who love to do these formal “classical” exercises, and that’s that it invites knowledgable audience members to play a fairly irrelevant game of gotcha. These compromises (and there are undoubtedly a lot more) are in the end superficial. Not only would you find just as many in any such period piece, but as all producers know, each one was more likely the result of an informed conversation and a choice rather than a mistake made out of ignorance.
The point of the film is the story; no one ever said this was to be an exercise in historical education. Such a looking-backward is by definition Romantic. In assembling his fairy tale scenario, writer director Michel Hazanavicius seems to have asked himself “What would Chaplin do?” In his later years, Chaplin increasingly dealt with changes in 20th century aesthetics by looking wistfully backwards and crafting simple, poetic tales that drew from those 19th century forms the pantomime and the melodrama. (I’m thinking chiefly of A Woman of Paris, The Circus, City Lights and Limelight). When he was on his game, the results were magic. The best Hollywood films can be expressed on the back of a matchbook: King Kong, The Champ, Scarface. The balancing act is of course to do a story everyone already knows, but to do it in such a way that it is sufficiently new that it will hold our interest. Here, Hazanavicius has mostly plundered A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Jean Dujardin is a swashbuckling star of silent films; Bérénice Bejo his new discovery, whose very name is “Peppy”. When talkies come in, Dujardin refuses to change and is washed up. Bejo becomes the new flavor of the month. The two also happen to love one another. It seems unresolvable, until the germ of the happy ending, planted early in the picture, sprouts at the 11th hour.
The expert handling of the silent conventions presents it from being hackneyed. Part of the film’s brilliance lies in its casting. Dujardin is a dream, so very Fairbanks-like (and yet his own) that you never could have made him up: all charm, virility and sex appeal, tempered by crow’s feet and a receding hairline. (As though to strike the point home, at one point Hazanavicius presents a scene from Fairbanks’ Zorro as though it belonged to his main character). The other star he resembles will be less well known to contemporary American audiences, but hopefully better known to the French: Max Linder, the cinema’s first comedy star, all silk top hats and opera capes and Parisian glamour. The real-life Linder, like the hero of this film, was suicidal (although for reasons other than the coming of sound, and, sadly, was successful at his attempt). In addition to his skills as a comedian and a dramatic actor, Dujardin can passably tap dance, which proves to be the character’s salvation. Bejo as Peppy is his match in every way (and how lucky for her that she has the flapper body type in addition to being Mrs. Hazanavicius.) The balance of the ensemble is mostly made up of familiar faces, most seemingly with echoes of previous performances: John Goodman as a cigar smoking producer reminiscent of his turn in Matinee; Penelope Ann Miller, who played Edna Purviance in Chaplin; and James Cromwell as a chauffeur, looking much as he did 35 years ago in Murder by Death. And there’s even a dog, a sort of cross between Tin-Tin’s Snowy and Rin-Tin-Tin (himself a silent star), who actually plays a pretty crucial role in the proceedings.
I had some other misgivings before going in: Silent melodramas (as opposed to comedies and swashbucklers) are often dreary to watch. As are certain modern attempts to recreate the genre (I’m thinking mainly of the films of Guy Maddin, which are beautiful but a little of him goes a long way). But Hazanavicius has his eye on the bottom line. There’s enough comedy, drama, sex, action and even dance to keep the thing moving. And in the end, a silent film, like any film, is about movement. We were engaged and moved the whole time.
As someone who watches silent film all the time and cares about it, the chatter about The Artist can at times be depressing and alienating: “I never thought I could sit still and watch a silent film!” But in the end, of course, it’s been heartening. Because millions of people obviously are watching a silent film and enjoying it, which is an exciting development.