The plot line is a bit schematic, resolute in its avoidance of swerves and complications. A new movie star is born, an old star fades. Time passes, technology rules, the talkies are here. Still, there are plenty of twists and nuances in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, and the plot feels really dogged only when it takes its pathos too seriously, inviting us to invest all our sympathy in the silent star stranded by the new system. This man is too diligently sorry for himself to leave much room for our participation. His success has died on him; he doesn’t know who he is without it. This is certainly a sad situation, but perhaps not quite so uniquely awful as the film suggests, and we may be tempted to cook up our own version of a brutal remark the star himself makes to his estranged wife. ‘I’m unhappy,’ she says. ‘So are millions of other people,’ he glumly responds. But then neither he nor we are those millions, our unhappiness is our own, and anyone can identify with loss. This is the larger nostalgia the film seems to appeal to. Change itself is the enemy, because it will always cause casualties. Silent film is a figure for the past itself, the old days, whatever it is that was present and is now gone.
Fortunately there are all kinds of other things happening in the film, and even the plot works well enough when it brings the rising and fading stars together, rather than just grieving for the one. And humour does catch up with the pathos. When Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, past-it action hero of the old movies, incinerates his house and almost kills himself by setting fire to the reels of all his old films, the intelligent dog who was his co-star goes and fetches a cop. The cop, very slow to realise that the dog is talking to him (to recognise the movie moment, so to speak), finally gets it and races down the street to pull Valentin from the flames. Film can kill, the smoking reels suggest, but a dead film form can save a man’s life.
And a dead film life can be reborn. When the new star, Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, rescues Valentin from his gloom, saying she won’t act in her new hit if he isn’t allowed to join her, a marvellous verbal formulation maps a whole intricate world. Valentin doesn’t believe in himself, or in this second chance. ‘Nobody wants to see me speak,’ he says. We expect the obvious correction: audiences don’t see speaking, they hear it. Or at least they do now. But that isn’t Peppy’s idea, and she isn’t even thinking of what seems to be the bouncy solution: audiences will see him dance. They will, but they could do that in silent films already. The important thing is that they will hear him dance, tapping frantically away, as if already occupying the space that seemed to be reserved for Fred Astaire.
The Artist has a lush, loud and ever present orchestral soundtrack by Ludovic Bource. People have been bothered, apparently, by the insistent musical allusions to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, but the echoes seem to me perfectly placed. They remind us of a film about obsessions and losses, about a death that is not a death, and they place us aurally in the 1950s, long after the closing date of The Artist’s narrative, which is 1932: the moment where we need to be if we are to join the film in its strange search for the past. We have to be here so we can think about being there. I assume we are also supposed to pick up anachronistic parallels to Sunset Boulevard (1950), and to remember the silent films Chaplin made when everyone else had turned to sound. Have I mentioned that the whole thing is in black and white?
The Artist is not a silent film, though, and not a reconstruction of one. It is a silenced film, in which almost all noise except the off-story music has been suppressed. We don’t hear people speak within the film, and we don’t hear any noises around them. We see Valentin silently shrieking with pain in a tale of torture and adventure; we see the audience silently clapping as this movie ends. When we are presumed to need to know what moving mouths on the screen are saying, there are title-cards, sparingly used, to tell us. These cards, and indeed a lot of the action in the film, make much ironic play with the idea of speech. ‘We must talk,’ Valentin’s wife says when she needs to discuss things with him. In the torture film his enemies are trying to get him to talk – that is, to inform. ‘If only he could talk,’ a movie producer says of Valentin – meaning presumably both talk well on screen and bring himself to believe in the talkies. He is a sort of unlucky twin of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, who cheerily makes the change this man can’t manage. At the end of the film, when he does briefly talk, Valentin reveals that he has a French accent. Was that the problem? It hasn’t been raised before, but perhaps it was part of his reluctance to try the new mode. More substantially, this little touch reminds us of one of the important differences between silent films and sound films: the second had to speak one national language, the first could (mutely) speak any language they liked.
I said almost all noise has been suppressed, and the exceptions are important, the first one because it makes our own movie normality seem alien, the second because it returns us to that normality as if we’d never been away. Valentin has been shown a screen test with sound: has presumably heard and seen a screen test with sound, although we, as spectators of this film, have only seen it. He has a dream in which objects make noises: a glass sounds just as it should when put down on a table, a phone ringing sounds like a phone ringing. In the dream, these events are extraordinary, even nightmarish. But people, as distinct from objects, are silent in the dream. They talk but Valentin can’t hear them. This now feels like genuine helplessness, as if silence has turned against him. He doesn’t want to hear the world but nobody will now want to see him talk, although seeing him talk is all anyone has ever done except when he was giving interviews.
The beauty of the second exception to the absence of noise is that the noise returns so unobtrusively. It’s what there is in the movies now: it was the silence that was strange, even if we were getting used to it. When Valentin and Peppy perform their snappy Fred and Ginger number, I didn’t think about the sound until they stopped. Then there was very audible panting coming from both of them. The microphones were still on, what we’d seen was a take being filmed and about to be filmed again. I thought: real noise. And instantly (although belatedly) realised I had been listening to noisy tap-dancing for several minutes. If this response means anything – doubts are possible – it suggests we can easily make ourselves at home in the old world of the silent film, or at least a canny modern simulation of it, but only because we have been imaginatively supplying the missing sound all along. That’s why we are so slow – if we are slow – in consciously noting its return. The audiences of silent films must have done some supplying of this kind quite naturally – but they didn’t have to forget what couldn’t be provided.
Peppy’s rescue of Valentin is the climax of a love story, of course. The star-struck girl achieves fame of her own but is still attracted to her old idol, grateful for the advice he gave her, for his kindness to her. Nothing wrong with any of this, but both roles are too abstract and readymade to permit any intensity or warmth in the story if it’s supposed to be about human beings. What lingers in the mind, what creates actual emotion, has to do with the cinema, arises from the interplay of the abstractions. Without Peppy, Valentin is a moment in the movies that can have no legacy or afterlife. What she loves in him is this moment. She won’t let go of it, because she grandly and improbably believes the movies can’t be what they should be if they forget what they once were.