A Moment of Silents: Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist

By Michael Sicinski

This “serious” breakthrough by French comic director Michel Hazanavicius, best known for his OSS spy-flick parodies, is a head-scratcher, a problem that won’t go away, and above all an object that isn’t worth the ire of any hardcore cinephile. It’s basic mediocrity in a clever new disguise. One can take umbrage, I suppose, at Hazanavicius bringing the most basic gestures of silent-era filmmaking into the mix. But we might just as well exercise our vitriol over, say, The Descendants, in terms of Alexander Payne’s lack of concern for DNR patients or Hawaiian culture. We’re watching a hollow premise in action, with the possible proviso that The Artist, like so much late-late-postmodernist, decadent-era trash, flatters its viewership for a thimble’s worth of Wikipedia learning. To call The Artist an homage to the films of the silent era is to imply that Hazanavicius or his muse, actor Jean Dujardin, regard them as more than a manageable plot device. They don’t—it’s apparent in the overall shoddiness of the production itself—but this doesn’t make the film any sort of travesty, or even prevent it from being nominally diverting. What it isn’t, however, is magical. It’s a kind of random-access image succotash, a wet clothesline of half-remembered iconic moments from a college course somebody told somebody else about having taken.

There’s something truly off about the way Hazanavicius approaches The Artist as an endeavour, and it seems to have something to do with an unwitting historical double-consciousness, or better yet, a lack of clear intellectual purpose. (He’s found a perfect match in the Weinsteins.) “Let’s make a silent film!” The Artist seems to say. Like its own ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), it implies that a certain winning smile and game pluckiness is all it requires to put such a project across; that despite the fundamental artifice The Artist entails, conviction will be somehow contagious. However, from its story structure to its direction and concrete plasticity, The Artist misjudges conviction; its makers fail to comprehend that it cannot lie only with Bejo and Dujardin’s ingratiating performances.

Silent cinema, after all—even in the bland American studio iteration that George Valentin (Dujardin) and his career seem to depict—was primarily about visual communication, the jolting brutality of an edit, or the conic foreclosure of an iris-out. Faces were landscapes; environments were richly haptic. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo conveys this exquisitely. Granted, this may not be a fair comparison, given that film’s subject matter. Georges Méliès was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, bar none; Valentin’s producer-director, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), by contrast, is meant to represent the sort of average, workmanlike filmmaker who fills the pages of David Bordwell textbooks. Still, it’s not just Hazanavicius’s films-within-the-film that hit the screen like wet newsprint. The Artist’s entire technique drips with averageness. It’s as if Hazanavicius is afraid that committing to advanced silent-film aesthetics might alienate his potential audience, preventing them from “forgetting that [they’re] watching a silent film.”

Then again, The Artist is indeed a kind of “average” of key films of the era, along with other major works that address the transition to the talkies. The opening sequence of silent-era moviegoing recalls Vertov’s Man With the Movie Camera (1929), but then, in its setting up of animosity between Valentin and his leading lady Constance (Missi Pyle), The Artist cites Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The rise of Peppy, concurrent with George’s failure, is of course a riff on A Star is Born (1937); several scenes explicitly reference City Lights (1931); and the near-climax in Peppy’s mansion combines Citizen Kane (1941)’s tyranny of objects with Sunset Blvd.’s (1950) castration panic of the “kept man.” We have silents, late-era silents, talkies about the silent era…But above all, what we have is a defiantly empty “romance” that turns on coincidence and illogical decision, finished off with a wholly unearned dollop of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo (1958) love theme. Hazanavicius does not craft The Artist meticulously enough for us to anticipate that its implied viewer would be a cinema-literate one, who would catch the references and delight at the presumed tributes therein. This is because there are no tributes; instead there are patchwork nods and third-generation pattern inferences, a script knotted together from shadowy recollections. The Artist understands that, most likely, there was an episode of The Simpsons that borrowed motifs from Singin’ in the Rain, or an old Cheers scene with the City Lights pawn shop shot, and you’ll recall those, not the originals. This is a film that demands a misplaced literacy of half-tropes from the tapped-out image bank of our times.

Likewise, The Artist’s characters don’t need to “make sense,” or act in reasonable ways, because the stereotype of silent-film plotting, or acting for that matter, is that it is broad, iconic, and given to clumsy machinations comprehensible only within the most outsized definitions of human nature. Again, The Artist is troubling because it is so Janus-faced with regard to its own self-interpretation. The “mugging” of the silent era becomes a joke within the film itself (George overhearing Peppy mocking the old style in a radio interview), but how are we to understand Hazanavicius’ own directorial approach? Dujardin hams it up most of the time, and he does so spectacularly. As many have remarked, he possesses a preternatural affinity for the Old Hollywood style, with his Cary Grant/Errol Flynn combination of suavity and self-deprecation.

But The Artist oscillates, without apparent cause or strategy, between the outward, exaggerated performance style of the Hollywood silents and the more naturalistic, psychologically implied approach more in keeping with contemporary drama. There are two sequences in The Artist which are quite beautifully constructed, and each operates in a different register entirely. The George/Peppy dance outtakes scene, which is silent, shows the “actors” off-guard and behaving as two contemporary performers on film. George’s sync-sound dream, by contrast, is pure physiognomic expressionism. Neither seems to belong in the same film as the other, and too much of The Artist feels like “the gimmick” is presumed to always bat cleanup for this lack of rigour.

“The gimmick,” together with its application within utterly familiar movie-mythic parameters, would seem to explain why The Artist gaining so much traction in the media and, apparently, in the popular imagination. The film stormed to the front of the Oscar wolf pack by winning the New York Film Critics’ awards for best film and director, as well as audience awards at a number of festivals; it’s poised to be a substantial commercial success. In spite of its not being made with a great deal of care, The Artist’s silence (which, it’s worth noting, evaporates at the film’s conclusion) connotes great “movie love,” a desire to rescue a way of experiencing the recorded image from perceptual oblivion, even as the film itself performs the opposite.

The Artist is far from the only experiment in creatively reviving the form, despite the undue hype. Far greater filmmakers than Hazanavicius have explored the syntax of early silents, most notably Aki Kaurismäki (Juha, 1999), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times, 2005), and, of course, Guy Maddin on every second Wednesday, most notably in The Heart of the World (2000), Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002) and Brand upon the Brain! (2006). Some larky attempts at the form have yielded madcap charm (Veit Helmer’s Tuvalu, 1999); others exhibit a smug superiority to the past (Rolf de Heer’s Dr Plonk, 2007). And still others have produced silent narrative artifacts that theorize their own existence. Eleanor Antin’s The Man Without a World (1991) is a fake Soviet silent by “Yevgeny Antinov,” set in a Polish shtetl. Zeinabu irene Davis’s Compensation (1999) is a comparison of two African-American love stories involving deaf protagonists; it’s a silent film that uses early methods in order to specifically create a “deaf cinema.” And of course, I haven’t even broached the pure-silent cinematic invention of the avant-garde.

What does all this tell us? The Artist wants us to consider, if only momentarily, the most basic methods of filmmaking as viable tools. (After all, Valentin, like Chaplin, makes a sound-era silent film with his own money, and Hazanavicius’ title is obviously meant to echo Chaplin’s studio name, United Artists.) A typical industry product would hint at innovation and then bring us safely back into the fold of “normal” filmmaking, which The Artist tries, however ineptly, to do. You’ve had your fun; now back to the talkies. And indeed, Dujardin and Bejo give it all they’ve got. Sadly, Hazanavicius is so unskilled, so steeped in the empty signposting of parody and stereotype, that he’s actually signaling to us throughout The Artist that we’re watching a quaint old art form Lindy Hopping its way to the bone yard.

It isn’t true.