Cinema’s shift from silents to ‘talkies’ was one of the most jarring in history: a definite marking point before which things were a certain way, and after which they were never the same again. It didn’t just usher in a new order of stars, cinematography, writing, style, celebrity, attention span–almost everything that separated the last century from its pre-industrial predecessor. It was the switch from films resembling dreams, the thing they’ve always been more like, to resembling–or trying to resembling–real life. Some of us are still lamenting the change.
One thing is certain–in summing up the story of last century, no more powerful metaphor exists.
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist takes metaphor as metaphor and tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), an actor remarkably like Douglas Fairbanks in face, gesture and biography, whose career suffers a steep decline with the advent of sound. His run-ins with an up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) show her star in the ascendant as a young, fresh talent who takes to sound like a young Joan Blondell. The Artist belongs to a very limited, very ancient genre along with A Star is Born and Applause; one which documents a very naked form of cruelty, practised by the public on the first Hollywood dieties ever to exist. Those who had given pleasure to millions were proved to be only as good as their last picture. It’s the parabolic story of decline and fall in a world that has no memory–and it’s a bit of a miracle.
I say this because I never expected the conventions of silent film to be treated so kindly, its strictures to be followed so to-the-letter. It’s rare that a modern filmmaker can take a story and a genre from another era and not try to make their own little snide subtextual remarks about it; like, ‘oh, weren’t women treated awfully back then?’ or ‘oh, wasn’t their way of doing things so primitive, so crude?’. Of course it would be worse if a modern filmmaker went the opposite route, and acted like there was nothing wrong at all with the past (a calamitous error, Steven Spielberg, if you’re reading, which no doubt you are). Hazanavicius sidesteps any danger of nostalgia or smarminess by telling the story almost exactly as it would have been told during the time at which it would have been familiar, with only a few brilliant exceptions. The most notable of these is a dream sequence in which Valentin is confronted by the stereophonic world–sound comes alive all around him while he, despite attempts to scream, is mute. He goes outside his dressing room and is greeted with the derisive laughter of chorus girls (it’s 1929–they’ll be employed for at least another decade). A feather falls from the sky and lands on the ground with the sound of a ten-ton deadweight. The whole sequence is played off as completely believeable both within a dream or a paniked mental soliloquy. The break from classicism does exactly what it should do–not mock the past, but help to better express the emotions that accompanied it–emotions which, in the films of the time, might have stayed buried for fear of unbidden complexity. Here a stylistic innnovation is presented not in opposition to but as part of a cliche, (the ‘dream sequence’ being one of the worst of all). Within in it, the film is allowed to step out of time, but not out of character.
Hazanavicius’ innovations are all of this nature–it is his genius for working within constraints that make him so ideally suited for, and unexpectedly sympathetic to, a retelling of a story that lost any bearing on reality more than eighty years ago.