The Artist (France 2011)

Black and white, 100 minutes, with title cards and some English subtitles.

Screenwriter and director: Michael Hazanavicius. Cinematography: Guilaume Schiffman. Music: Ludovic Bource.

The Leeds international Film Festival (where this was the penultimate screening) in its catalogue quotes the director: “what I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is – a show. I’m interested in the stylisation of reality, the possibility of playing with codes.” Hazanavicius seems to have succeeded, the film has had very good responses at the Cannes Film Festival and generally in France: the audience in Leeds clearly enjoyed the film, there was lot of laugher and a burst of applause as the end credits played out. I was less enthusiastic. This is a pastiche, as the director openly admits: probably my least favourite film form after pornography. I have read and heard differing opinions and I suspect that people’s enjoyment will depend on their knowledge of and acquaintance with the Silent Cinema, which the film attempts to recreate.  For me it was just ‘off-kilter’, that slight exaggeration which is so common in pastiche.

The basic plot is familiar, going back to the 1932 film What Price Hollywood! However, in keeping with the director’s interests in film language, codes and genres, there are sizeable chunks of plot that reminded one of Citizen Kane (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Most of all, because it is a romantic comedy, there are frequent references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

The film was shot on 35 mm colour stock and then converted to black and white: it uses title cards for dialogue and plot information and there is an accompanying music track. At times it is very inventive, one pleasure is the use of sound rather than music for particular sequences. However, the cinema screening uses the DCP format, and I found the transfer to this retained the harder edges of that format, so that the black and white cinematography looks far too sharp for most examples of silent film. Likewise the acting, which is pretty effective, is just a shade too mannered. The film is set at the end of the Silent Era in the late 1920s and by this time Hollywood had developed an acting style that was less melodramatic and appeared more naturalistic. However, the major weakness for me was the accompanying music. This is not in the contemporary style, but neither is it in the style of 1920s accompaniment: in fact it reminded me most of 1950s radio music, rather anachronistic. The best musical moments were when the film used original recordings: an Ellington number, a 1930s rendition of Pennies From Heaven, and also at one point a solo piano.

As you might expect there are numerous references to the characters of the Silent Cinema and to its films. Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks all get a nod: the last-named actually has his The Mark of Zorro (1920) excerpted in this film. And there are comic routines modelled on gags from the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In that sense the film is well researched, and the design of settings and costumes and props is very well done. In fact, so much is familiar that one cannot remember all the references, which I assume, are intended. We are in the transition from the Silent to the Sound era in Hollywood, and this aspect is well reconstructed and dramatised.

I think the film is going to be very successful. My major reservation is that, as with the use of early film on television in the 1960s and 1970s, the film will shape people’s expectations of the experience of silent film viewing as less than accurate. And since we live in decades where it is easier to see early film classics than in the past that might be a hindrance and a pity.

10 comments

  1. Jake Baldwinson

    The DVD company, Flicker Alley, have recently reported a unexpected increase in demand for their Méliès box set. This is supposedly down to the new Spielberg film, Hugo featuring him as a character (and I presume clips from his films). I seriously don’t think The Artist would have a positive effect like that regarding interest in silent film. Actually it presents a pretty reductive view of that era, with nothing much to justify it (something that Singin’ in the Rain does perfectly well.) I really cannot understand why it is nominated for so many awards!

  2. keith1942

    The Guardian newspaper suggests that the film could be the first ”fully funded French film’ to win the major Aacdemy Award.
    I assume that the title cards in the film are changed for each language market. Even so, this is hardly a French Oscar runner. It was shot in L.A., courtesy of a major Hollywood player. And I don’t think there is a single French reference in the film.
    The director states he first thought of a ‘Fritz Lang’ film? Why not Jean Renoir, Abel Gance or Jean Vigo?
    Actually, I am glad he didn’t: I prefer Hollywood to suffer this pastiche.

  3. Bill Lawrence

    I saw The Artist recently with a few people who really liked it. I was utterly nonplussed so it is good to find some similarly negative responses. I started with over-expectations due to the hype, and for a short time, I was happy with it, but that quickly wore off. It became so predictable with one copy after another of favourite silent movies and then that of the plot when it reaches a point where it is so predictable. Films already quoted did it so much better while remaining great movies. Pastiche, yes, maybe burlesque. The style is so confused not of the late 1920s but more 10 years earlier and 10 years later, then lifting part of the score of Vertigo for the later chase. So confused. I can understand why people might enjoy it (I didn’t) but it is not a great film so the critical reviews and awards I just don’t get. As for Fritz Lang, has he seen any of his films? Where is the moral ambiguity, present in his films from very early days – it wasn’t just impressive sets. It makes you appreciate true silent cinema that much more – even Mel Brooks!

  4. keith1942

    I had forgotten about the ‘pinch’ from Vertigo, though that is quite a common device in modern cinema.
    As I noted, the audience at Leeds festival were overall positive.

  5. keith1942

    My suggestion of an inverse ratio between the experience of Silent Cinema and the enjoyment of this film is clearly incorrect. All sorts of experienced fans of early cinema profess to like it. One is Neil Brand, the silent film composer and accompanist, [on Radio 4’s Film Programme].
    Interestingly he identified some of the accompanying music as in the French ‘chanteuse’ style: something that passed me by.
    He also suggested that the increasing availability of early film DVDs has helped make the film accessible. I did rather think that visually that is what this film reminded me of.

  6. Roy Stafford

    I generally agree with Keith and Bill. It’s well made and the two leads and the dog are attractive performers. I don’t have a problem with lots of people enjoying the film and it’s good it has brought some audiences into cinemas who perhaps wouldn’t be there – a bit like The King’s Speech (but a better film I think). The real surprise is that it has won so many awards already and the tragedy is that there are other films out there that offer so much more.

    Just on a technical point – were there more intertitles than was necessary? I found myself watching the mouths move and then expecting a title card after a while. I don’t normally have this problem watching silent films.

    Hope Ashphalt was good Keith. I saw it at the Leeds Festival in the old ABC in the wrong ratio, as I remember – but it still looked good. Sunrise a few weeks ago was wonderful, of course.

  7. keith1942

    Re the intertitles or title cards, there was a wide variation in their frequency and length in the silent era. I thought The Artist fell into the median.
    Sunrise was directed by F. W. Murnau, who was a master of limiting the use of titles, his Der Letze Mann has only two and a couple of printed frames.
    Re the Oscars, I think one factor is the skills of Weinstein in this market, but I suspect that the Academy are taken with the idea of a French tribute to Classic Hollywood

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