Friday, January 13, 2012

Guest blog: THE ARTIST

The Artist is not so much a silent film as a sound film that keeps its mouth shut. We accept that this is a choice, a gimmick, a deliberate discipline, because we are made aware of this self-limitation early on and at several key moments in the film when the ‘sound barrier’ is violated. It’s a masterful decision. Because director Michel Hazanavicius draws our attention to this vow of silence, the film opens up for a contemporary audience. We are seduced. We don’t need to know that the story is historically well researched. 

Its story of a male and female star whose careers move in opposite directions with the arrival of sound resembles that of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. (When the great Swedish actress appeared in sound films in 1930 it gave rise to one of the great PR headlines in film history: ‘Garbo Talks!’). We don’t need to recognise its parallels and intersections with other great Hollywood treatments of its setting and themes: A Star is Born (1937, 1954), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952). We don’t need to know that this homage to American film’s Golden Age is, in fact, largely the creative product of a French cast and crew. What was essential about silent film, the human face, is here the primary point of engagement that draws us in, involves us deeply in a story about beautiful strangers and allows us, ultimately, to experience why silent film, before the Babel of sound, so quickly and comprehensively conquered the world as the art form of the masses. 

Watching The Artist, we encounter cinema as those early audiences did and realise that, without dialogue, we enter more fully into the experience. Asking what just happened is meaningless. But the film’s effect is not derived from mere nostalgia. It is also a timely fable on a modern topic: human obsolescence by technology. In the film, the arrival of sound almost fatally undermines George Valentin’s status and success, but it might as well be automation, downsizing or outsourcing. This is no coincidence. 

Silent film (particular in the period in which The Artist is set) very often sought out universal themes, or more particularly themes that paradoxically questioned the modernity of which it was such a glowing emblem of. You’ll find similar themes in F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) or Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) all masterpieces by silent-era artists, but only one of whom made the successful transition to sound.

Tony Tracy

The Artist runs at the IFI from January 6th - 26th. For more information and bookings, visit

Due to phenomenal demand an extra late-night screening of The Artist will take place at 11pm on Friday 13th January at the IFI. For more information and bookings, contact the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or book online [here].

1 comment:

  1. Is it just me or did anybody else think it was significant that when he spoke at end it was in heavily accented French? I know the actor is French but did that not explain why a career in talkies would never have worked - because of his heavy accent, or am I reading too much into it??