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February 15, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

The Artist: moustaches, beauty spots and silence

The moustache, hard at work seducing Berenice Bejo - click here for the official film trailer.

The Best Actor Oscar should, in all honesty, go to Jean Dujardin’s magnificent moustache. What award-chasing actor worth his salt would not want an excuse to craft the Clark-Gable of moustaches onto the elegant moulded features of a Gene-Kelly look-a-like face? It works the camera all on its own.

While the moustache goes unrecognised for his brilliant performance, it’s hard not to be swept away by the magnificent execution of the duly award-encrusted The Artist as a whole. It’s a sweet homage to the glory days of the silent screen, when hamming it up was simply called ‘acting’. George Valentin (a moustache followed by Jean Dujardin) is a silent-screen megastar who takes a shine to dorky extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). When ‘talkies’ revamp the entire film industry and the pair’s roles are reversed, Peppy takes far too long to figure out how she can save the poor maligned George from sinking into talkies obscurity. Throughout, George’s lovable (and companion actor) pet dog plays clown to Dujardin’s glamour superstar. The Artist still has to carry the difficulties of working with a silent format, because having no dialogue means you’re restricted in terms of complex plot developments, and so that’s pretty much it for the main base of the story.

The film does go for a touch too long. At an hour and forty minutes, there were points at which the people next to me were looking at their watches. But aside from some minor tweaks, the pace is reasonable and the storyline enjoyable. The plot itself seems to work best if you consider it as a framework; there’s so much to consider both in the style and tone of the film that having a relatively simple plot makes it easier to enjoy the niceties of silent cinema (with a soundtrack).

The performances themselves are also quite solid. Peppy is a bit too—well—peppy for my liking (the earnestness and cutsey-pie acting is a bit overdone for me, even in a silent film). The beauty spot that George suggests she wear is a genial meet-cute, cutting through swathes of unnecessary dialogue and getting straight to the crux of their relationship quickly. Dujardin’s performance strikes a pleasant balance between knowing when to ham it up and getting his acting on, making him easy to watch on screen, but then again, he’d probably be easy on the eye dressed in a hessian sack. James Cromwell edges the outskirts of several frames as the rather adorable chauffeur to George, while John Goodman is a sensible choice as a film studio exec—his role as threatening Air Conditioning Man on Community is testament to that.

What is ingenious about the sculpting of The Artist is how it grabs the monumental difficulty of presenting a film without spoken dialogue and instead makes this challenge such an asset that inserting spoken dialogue would destroy the entire film.

Take, for example, the dream sequence near the beginning of the film. While in his powder room, George Valentin begins to realise that talkies are a real threat to his silent-film career. Suddenly everything except him owns a sound, creating an island of noise in an otherwise sound-effect-free film while George screams from within. The scene perfectly encapsulates George’s fears and emphasises how this film gives the sound of silence such value. The Artist has proved that it is possible to grab the horns of an incredibly complex beast, the art of silence itself, and ride it victoriously off into the sunset.

Other elements, too, became more noticeable when watching a silent film. The soundtrack (symphony) has a heightened purpose; every decrescendo acts as confirmation of an audience’s suspicion each time an actor raises an eyebrow or looks away. Complete silence is, in itself, an awkward proposition, and something that is attempted with less success throughout the film. I think for modern audiences, complete silence is too much. We’re so used to being hyper-aware of everything—dialogue (and within that, tone and cadence and accents), background music and noise, minor characters and facial expressions—that having nothing but the unadulterated visual of two people embracing on the screen automatically feels like the film is missing something that needs to be there. We’re so used to being told how to feel in particular scenes, generally through music, that we’ve forgotten what independent visual stimuli can do.

I also noticed that what you generally miss out on in silent films such as The Artist is minor characters. In a silent film, the relationships must generally be well-established enough that most interaction can be guessed at without cue cards—a warm embrace and friendly smile is enough to be indicative of small talk. In that sense, it’s easy for the audience to develop an easy rapport with a character’s facial expressions, confident we’ve got a handle on their thoughts. But due to this dependence on strong knowledge of character traits, you also get the sense that The Artist is a very small world—it is difficult to introduce any incidental characters that may add texture, and the few minor players that do exist in the film are generally hammed up to emphasise their purpose. We may see the dancing girls auditioning for a part next to Peppy Miller, but we get no sense of who they might be, what brought them here, or the type of world they may have to navigate as a struggling actor or dancer.

The Artist is a beautiful, somewhat quaint, but generous and surprising film that addresses the challenge of silence. Not only does it meet these challenges, it also demonstrates fascinating ways to make such a challenge an outstanding advantage in a film industry where the louder the explosion, the bigger the pay packet. One can only hope that films such as The Artist continue to challenge the notion of what constitutes the necessary elements of a film, because even without spoken dialogue, I’m highly impressed with the goods.


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