Cinema Study: The Artist

Christine Haroutounian


When was the last time Oscar buzz revolved around black-and-white silent films? Now, actually. French director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) has captured the hearts of critics and audience members alike in this charming feel-good film, bringing the magic of Hollywood circa 1927 back to the screen with a keenly modern touch. While the soundtrack conducted by Ludovic Bource is sensitive to every scene and the subtlest changes in body language, the same cannot be said of its storyline. A famous silent movie star, George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin) masterfully fulfills the cinematic trope of the rise and fall of the artist as he stubbornly refuses to adapt to talkies, hubris being the genuine source of his demise rather than the fickle demands of show business. A new love interest and rising starlet, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), exacerbates Valentin’s woes as her full-toothed smile splashes the front pages of newspapers and costly productions, largely thanks to an unrealistic twist of fate with the media and Valentin’s star power.

Categorizing this as a silent film is misleading. Along with the soundtrack there are moments of sound regardless of how minimal the use is, and that is perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the film – thrilling in the sense that you forget how drastically your senses shift without the constant variables of dialogue and sound effects, transforming even the ring of the telephone into a physiologically shocking, alien experience. This is welcome considering the film is quite predictable and unchallenging. In fact, the most challenging aspect of The Artist was convincing someone to see it with me in theatres. It is still unclear whether the lack of an intellectually demanding plot line is a result of the directorial challenges of making a silent movie (after all, one doesn’t want to be bombarded by innumerable dialogue stills) or if Hazanavicius simply wanted to pay homage to the enthusiasm that drove the novel art form of cinema into an unstoppable industry and cultural marker. Either way, The Artist revives the spirit and history of moviemaking as confidently and sentimentally as the great animators of slapstick comedy once iconically did, leaving one with a sense of lightness after a fun show.