In “The Artist,” Silence Is Golden

Dujardin, Bejo in "The Artist"

Film Friday

When I posted on the film Hugo and mentioned my love for silent cinema. I little knew that I would soon be watching a contemporary silent film. Then I saw The Artist and fell in love all over again.

Some of the fun, at least for a film professor, is identifying all the allusions to Hollywood’s golden age. Here are a few I can recall:

–Sometimes leading man Valentin is Douglas Fairbanks dueling in The Three Musketeers.
–His marriage has a sequence of breakfast scenes that echo the deteriorating marriage in Citizen Kane
–Valentin’s dog could be Asta from The Thin Man or Mr. Smith from The Awful Truth. At one point he plays the role of Rin Tin Tin.
–At another point Valentin appears overwhelmed by close-ups of mocking mouths, recalling the doorman Emil Jennings’s humiliation in Murnau’s The Last Laugh.
–The film ends with an homage to Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1932, not only in the dance sequence but in the wonderful cross section of a set. Valentin’s and Peppy’s dancing also is reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
–Alcoholic hallucinations in a bar recall the delirium tremens scene in The Lost Weekend.
–Of course, his name recalls Rudolph Valentino, the hot Latin lover of the 1920’s.
–Leading lady Peppy Miller, meanwhile, appears to be modeled on Clara Bowe, the “It” Girl. She could also be the discovered actress in A Star is Born.
–Two scenes, although not in the spirit of classic American cinema, are still effective: there’s a dream sequence that harkens back to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and a scene with an actor moving from one female fantasy to another that looks as though it were lifted out of Fellini’s 8 ½.
–The film as a whole owes a great deal to the difficult transition to sound that is the subject of Singin’ in the Rain. The actor, meanwhile, reminded me of John Gilbert, who used to play opposite Greta Garbo but who, unlike her, could not cross over (and who subsequently, like Valentin, succumbed to alcohol). Indeed, Peppy at one point says, “I want to be alone,” one of Garbo’s early spoken sentences.

I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of allusions. When you see the film, send in any you notice.

In addition to being a feast for film historians, The Artist also captures that special quality that silent films have for modern viewers. It appears somewhat exaggerated at first because we’re not used to the language of pantomime but then becomes charming as we adjust. The silent cinema had an elaborate system of communication—we can call it a special grammar—and The Artist plays with this double vision.

I saw the film in a sold-out Manhattan theater. That itself is reminiscent of a time when the silver screen was more central to people’s lives than it is today. Sound at first seemed to distract from the total immersion that silent cinema commanded and that turned actresses into ethereal goddesses or lurid vamps and actors into swaggering heroes or melodramatic villains.  Once audiences heard them speak, however, they never wanted to go back.

That’s understandable because sound allowed the medium to grow in marvelous ways. But it was fun to go back for a night.

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  • The central character’s resistance to sound reminded me of the resistance to color in art photography. Despite the fact that the world is in color (as were home snap shots), for a very long time only black and white photography was seen as “art.” However, many of the greatest images from the history of the medium were made before color was accepted. From the very first, work was produced that remains to be surpassed: Le Grey, Frith, Negres, Cameron. The same cannot be said for the type of films shown in The Artist–though there were, of course, great early film masters like Lang, Strohiem, Eisenstein, Keaton. I became aware, when watching The Artist, that dialogue was in fact unnecessary: we knew what the actors would be saying without needing to hear them say it, not because the acting was so deeply expressive but because the stories being told were so predictable. For me, the weakness in the film is that the main character thinks of himself as an artist, while I was largely unable to. There were exceptions–the falling in love scene is one–but for much of the movie I found the acting “charming,” just as you say, but only as good as the obvious story line allowed.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for the reminder that Valentin’s claims of being “an artist” are dubious, Elizabeth. There are actors who were–the ones who come to my mind are Chaplin, Keaton, and Falconetti (for her performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc immediately come to mind–and Lang and Eisenstein have moments in their films that are sublime, but Valentin seems to be playing more Douglas Fairbanks/Tom Mix type roles, which aren’t exactly to the movies what, say, Steichen is to black and white photography. My friend Rachel Kranz who went to see the film with us noted that, with dialogue, the plot wouldn’t have been very engaging. It’s as though we are captivated by seeing the film through a double lens: we are watching the myth of the silent cinema and the spell it once held over audiences rather than seeing it directly. The black and white photography is part of that myth.

  • Robin Bates

    And here are some observations from my knowledgeable film friend Jim Bershon:

    I loved “The Artist” and just saw a program about the making of the film on TV. The film was so clever and original, which is a very strange comment about a silent, black and white film. I guess that everything is new again if you just wait long enough. We are so accustom to seeing a plot told through well written dialogue, that audiences find it difficult to relate to a storyline that uses a different format. This film is a perfect example of that. Facial expressions and body language can say more than pages of dialogue. Another recent example is Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” or his other wonderful films that tell the story through his slow moving visuals.

    There was so much thought that when into “The Artist”. By changing the film to a black and white format, the viewer is less distracted by the bright colors and can focus on the emotions of the actors. Woody Allen is the only contemporary American director to have the courage and creativity to make black and white films. The TV show about the making of the film pointed out a few subtile things that I missed. The character of George Valentin wears clothes that are in strong contrasting black and white, while Peppy Miller’s character is very drably dressed in monochromatic gray. As she becomes the star she wears the strong contrasting clothes and he fades to gray as he declines in stature. That’s just brilliant!

    There are many other terrific aspects to this film. The first time that any sound is heard in the film, I believe is when a glass makes an unexpected noise and Valentin’s life has suddenly changed. It is almost as disorienting to the viewer as when the policeman is shot in the face when he climbs onto the running board in “Bonnie and Clyde” and you realize this film is not a comedy.

    I also love that the dog upstages the actress to prove the old adage that W.C. Fields quipped “Never work with dogs or small children!” The other fact that I learned from the TV show was that neither Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo could dance and that it took them five months of daily training to become that proficient and pull off those wonderful dance sequences. That alone should cinch the Oscars for them.

    Many of the films scenes were not sets that were built, but on location at an old film lot from the 20’s or interiors of buildings in downtown L.A. that date back to that period.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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