Thursday, 19 January 2012
The Artist: some thoughts
What is The Artist about? Well, it's about silence as metaphor for a start, but before I start polishing my glasses and setting off into the heart of darkness, I should say the film, as style, was light, soufflé light; somewhat knowing of course, as how could a film like this not be, winking at various earlier films along the way (Singing in the Rain, of course, but also Citizen Kane, the Zorro series, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and all too many to mention without sounding pretentious about it) - but not so as to get nudgingly annoying.
What made it light was the absolute acceptance of the conventions of filmic melodrama on the one hand and a glorious delight in directorial and writerly invention on the other.
The melodrama is both in the story - the old, ever moving story of fall and salvation - and in the delicately underplayed acting that paid tribute to silent film without sending it up or wrapping it in candy. The direction was delightful: it was as if Nick Park had got together with Jean-Louis Barrault over a few glasses of champagne. Everywhere you looked in a shot there was perfect placing without heavy self-consciousness. The music was great, the dancing at the end was graceful and joyous, the narrative well sustained. It was a marvellous late afternoon's entertainment.
The plot, like that of Singing in the Rain, concentrates on the moment when talkies put silent films and their stars out of business. Funny, genuinely gifted egotist star who loves his life misses his chance to move into sound while the girl he helped on a whim, and had fallen in love with, goes on to eclipse him by adapting and exploiting the new.
The contrary movement in fortunes is another old story, as old as fall and salvation. The film does nothing with these themes, they are taken for granted. They are serious. They only have to be reactivated so they don't look corny and tired.
Invention is the key. There was the splendid incidental invention (the Nick Park element) - for example, the way the wife of the central character, George Valentin, kept blacking out his teeth in newspaper photographs. There is the lovely moment when Valentin sees the heroine, Peppy Miller's legs behind a screen and starts dancing with them. Again there is a precedent to this, but it was carried off with genuine freshness.
The real inventions however - the moving ones - were those touching the key theme of the film: the movement from silence to sound and all that such a transition implies. The key shot is the one where Valentin first hears the sound of a glass as he puts it down on the table. He has never actually heard sound - not the meaning of sound, not in that way. All noises are suddenly amplified, and while this becomes a running joke it is also an aspect of the tragedy-as-melodrama. Something breaks through to Valentin, breaks in on him with a crash, and it bodes no good.
All the key moments from here on are associated with the intrusion of sound into a silent world. Valentin cannot speak. He mouths, he shouts, he screams at the mirror but no sound comes out. At one level, of course, this is no more than a metaphor for the plot (silent film actor finds no place in the world of talkies), but at another level - and I am not trying to be clever, I think we actually feel this level - it is about the sense of precipitous, calamitous loss. The loss is inarticulable. We cannot speak as we used to. We know George Valentin is a silent film character in a melodrama but that doesn't mean his experience is detached from ours. We find in him what we find in dreams and in masks. His decline to the point at which even his shadow walks off is equally dreamlike. The silence that was once a comfort becomes a disaster if you cannot speak. You no longer know who you are. You shadow - your very soul - walks off without you.
The film, however carries on its light way, with witty use of titling; with the miraculously cute dog (and Valentin is in fact a kind of miraculous cute dog) that acts as his fleshly alter ego; and with the slightly cadaverous, kindly driver Clifton, who remains as loyal to Valentin as the dog does. It's hard to act opposite a cute performing dog. Jean Dujardin, who plays Valentin, brings it off by acting to the dog as well as with it.
I won't write a spoiler here. A friend thinks The Artist (why is it called that?) not Oscar material. In a way he's right, but it is rather extraordinary that within a few minutes we forget we are watching something, well, extraordinary: a silent film in black and white full of all the old silent film tropes we thought we knew so well. All around it in the trailers the normal film world goes on. The new Clooney, the new Eastwood, the new Polansky, but this stands everything on its head. It's not sentimental. It's not too cute. It's not too pleased with itself. It's not irony.
I don't expect a run of imitations, or if there is one I expect them to be far worse. There is a touch of genius here. I think I might give it a vote. Not for the humour and grace alone but for opening up the depth at which lightness can work in us. Some people have talked of it in terms of charm. It goes a lot deeper than charm does. And Jean Dujardin as George Valentin is excellent, moving from John Gilbert to Douglas Fairbanks, to Erroll Flynn to Gene Kelly with effortless ease. You should hear him speak!
And because dancing is wonderful, here is Astaire in my favourite clip that I put up at least once a year. The hell with it! Let's dance.