I knew this was going to happen. In fact, I am writing this the night before Oscar nominations are announced, after just having seen The Artist. I was upset about this movie from the first trailer I saw. My father mentioned to me that they had made a new silent movie, and as I watched the trailer, still on the phone with my dad, my heart sank. They were making a mockery of silent film! This trailer (which was a very early one and has since not been used to publicize the movie) billed it as “one man’s love letter to silent cinema,” and honestly, my first thought was, “Has this man even seen a silent movie?” The acting is atrocious, measuring by silent standards. The plot is ripped from Singin’ in the Rain. The cinematography steals scenes directly from Citizen Kane. The director absolutely bashes the audience over the head with symbolism. And I am not alone! Michel Hazanavicius is not being “lightly criticized;” more than one patron coming out of the movie theater complained of the stolen plot from Singin’ in the Rain. I will concede that Jean Dujardin is a fantastic actor. I was enchanted by his rapscallion charm. His acting is exempt from my criticisms because he did not pantomime. Pantomine is not silent acting. But Dujardin used his physical expressions in a self-aware and endearingly self-mocking way. He didn’t take it too seriously, and he comes out on top. He deserves every award he wins, starting with the breakout win atCannes for Best Actor. If Michel Hazanavicius wins for that poor work, I will be sorely disappointed, but sadly not surprised.
Let me begin with the acting. In this interview with Hazanavicius, he is quoted as telling his female lead (and coincidentally or not so, his wife) to develop “her own style.” She was studying silent greats like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, women who successfully made the leap from silents to talkies, the journey which forms the entire crux of Berenice Bejo’s character, Peppy Miller. Hazanavicius told her to stop. Why stop studying the greats? How else do we learn? Yes, copying a star’s acting exactly will never work. I’m sorry, but you will never have what Brando had. Don’t do a Brando impression. But studying their techniques and styles will only help, especially when working in an outdated form. Silent acting is vastly different from stage acting and especially from today’s film acting. Telling your stars to “wing it” will not yield the results you want. Telling extras to wing it will make everyone, including the director, look stupid. In the opening sequence, the audience at George Valentin’s premiere is a perfect example of pantomiming. People were not that stupid just because it was 1927. Women really didn’t clasp their hands together and almost faint. Indicating is such a taboo in modern acting, so what makes it ok to indicate in a silent film? Indicating means not creating a real emotion but, basically, going through the motions. An unconvincing actor is often indicating. Silent acting just means you need to better express yourself with your facial and body movements. It does not mean use over exaggerated, ridiculous body language. The audience isn’t idiots either. We will know you think something is funny if you only chuckle. No need for that fake belly laugh. Dujardin, who starred in Hazanavicius’s OSS 117 series, a spoof on James Bond films, brings a light-heartedness to his role. He doesn’t take the acting to seriously, and he lets his emotions be little and his comedy be physical. He is charming and dashing and fully self-aware of his antics. He only pantomimes for a joke. It’s interesting that Hazanavicius lets him get away with it, when clearly Bejo is much more controlled and directed, but Dujardin did well.
The plot is not entirely Singin’ in the Rain, but the similarities are undeniable. The film opens with the premiere of another successful, and silent, George Valentin film, co-starring his trusty Jack Russell terrier and his wife, played by Uggie and Penelope Ann Miller, respectively. Valentin is on top of the world, when a fan girl falls into his arms outside the theater. A snapshot of the two winds up in the paper, and when she appears on his film set the next day as an extra, he gets her a bigger part. “The name’s Miller. Peppy Miller!” she winks. With the advent of talkies, George’s career goes into decline. The studio wants “fresh meat,” and he is out, while Peppy is in. George makes one last silent film, spending all of his money, and the film opens the day the stock market crashes. No one goes to the premiere except Peppy. George’s wife leaves him. George loses his house. George sells his tuxedo to get a few bucks. George fires his valet and loyal friend, Clifton. George’s bad luck continues. In a fit of rage, George burns the films he has stored in his house, and since film negatives are highly flammable, almost dies in the blaze. His Terrier saves him, and Peppy nurses him back to health. But, when she offers him a part in her new talkie, he refuses, angry that she has to help him financially and in his career. He goes back to his burnt-out apartment and is about to pull the trigger when Peppy rushes into his arms. She saves him, with one last great idea. They will tap dance on film! Not unlike Singin’, but strangely darker. George is just beaten down and beaten down. Scene after excruciatingly scene of bad luck for George. And it ends in a classic Fred and Ginger, sweeping tap duet, happy ending.
The cinematography throughout is good, but not reminiscent of a silent film. Hazanavicius claims he didn’t want to make a silent movie, visually, but a movie without sound. Apparently his DP came to him saying “This is so Citizen Kane, this is the 1940’s, not the 1920’s,” and Hazanavicius’s response was “I don’t care.” He probably should have cared, because he allowed scenes from Citizen Kane to be put exactly into his film. (To say nothing of photoshopping Dujardin’s face on top of George Fairbanks in a print of Mark of Zorro.) George’s wife really serves no plot purpose other than as one more nail in his coffin of depression, but Hazanavicius spends a lot of time establishing their discord, through the classic Citizen Kane break fast scenes. Absolutely anyone who has taken a film course has studied those scenes as groundbreaking cinematography in which form mirrors content. The distance at the breakfast table, created through newspaper and camera angles mirrors the distance between husband and wife’s relationship. Simple, obvious. Why are we giving this man awards? To him credit, the DP, Guillaume Schiffman, who was not allowed to study silent films either, did a great job with the direction he was given. The menacing, Hitchcockian spoof camera angles as George rips the dustcloths off the relics of his former success is beautiful camerawork. Unfortunately, it’s been done, and not in this kind of film.
In addition to his obvious references to Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain, Hazanavicius virtually beats the audience over the head with the symbolism of sound and silence. A trio of monkeys statues, representing “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” become a certerpiece of George’s demise, as we see them in his mansion during the good years, on the auction block, and later in storage at Peppy’s house, where her pity has placed them. We get it. The monkeys are supposed to mean something, but they become only a device. The falcon in The Maltese Falcon is a supreme example of a physical symbol that is not overused. The falcon appears only in the last 20 minutes of the film, and wrapped up until the last 5. I don’t mean to digress, but the absence gives the symbolism more weight. The monkeys have no meaning. They become just some kitschy plot device. From the opening sequence, when backstage at the premiere appears the sign “Be silent behind the screen,” to the final calls (audibly) of “Cut the talk! Silence!” Hazanavicius overdoes it, no he more than overdoes it with the silence symbolism. The symbols come to be devoid of meaning through their overuse. George, unable and unallowed to transition from silents to talkies is hushed by Peppy’s maid and says wistfully (in intertitles of course) “If only he could talk” (of his dog). George’s dream in which he can hear the sounds others make and the sound of his glass clinking against the table but no sound comes out of his mouth, and his waking nightmare when the audience sees a close-up of a policeman’s mouth, but George hears nothing, communicate, rather blatantly, that George feels powerless about his silence. It would be too numerous to list every groan I uttered at another jab at silence. The final blow comes when John Goodman requests, verbally, one more take, and Jean Dujardin, in his lovely French accent responds, “With pleasure.” The film should have ended there and gone out with a little bit of grace. Instead, Hazanavicius takes a slow pan back and back and back, revealing the movie studio the stars are filming in, as we hear those last cries of “Silence!” and then, “Action!” as it cuts to black.
Hazanavicius not only borrowed from other movies (better movies) plots and cinematography, but music. Kim Novak, star of Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, claimed that Hazanavicius stole Bernard Herrmann’s music for his own film. She called it rape. Hazanavicius’s statement was this:
“The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema, and grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wilder. I love Bernard Herrmann and his music has been used in many different films and I’m very pleased to have it in mine. I respect Kim Novak greatly and I’m sorry to hear she disagrees… I used music from another movie, but it’s not illegal. We paid for that, we asked for that and we had the permission to do it. For me there is no real controversy…. I feel sorry for her.”
Non, Michel. C’est une traveste.
‘The Artist’ Director Responds to Kim Novak Slam Over ‘Vertigo’ Music
‘The Artist’ director defends use of Hitchcock score
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS, “THE ARTIST”