The Artist: A Silent Movie that Won’t Shut Up About Talkies

12/23/2011 8:58 AM |

Sacré bleu, what happened to the audio?!
  • “Sacré bleu, what happened to the audio?!”

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are reminiscing about old Hollywood. This week they wonder what went wrong with the soundtrack to Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist.

STEWART:
Talk about your escapist prestige seasons, eh, Ben? Over the past few weeks, we haven’t yet seen a 2012 Oscar contender set in the present day; we’ve hardly even seen a movie set in America. Scorsese chose to make a movie not only set far in the past, but also in Europe. The Europeans have also been focused on the past and on Europe, as in My Week with Marilyn or the upcoming Iron Lady. France’s The Artist is the apotheosis of this escapist trend: it’s set in the 20s-30s, in Hollywood (escapist for French people, Ben), and it’s not only black-and-white but silent—that’s right, an honest-to-goodness silent movie, a sort of ode to the charm, physicality and romanticism of Chaplin. How much more distanced from unpleasant realities could you be? Though, did you notice how often the film referenced talkies of the 30s and 40s? It seemed more enamored of a different kind of Hollywood than the one it ostensibly celebrates; I saw a lot more direct “quotes” from Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Broadway Melody of 1940 and especially The Thin Man than I did anything by Melies or Harold Lloyd.

SUTTON:
You’re right, Henry, the lion’s share of The Artist‘s many narrative and aesthetic quotations allude to films of the sound era. Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard continually came to my mind, as both are similarly concerned with the industry’s transition to talkies and what it meant for stars of the silent era. What is it with Oscarbait-y movies and anxieties over new technologies, particularly audio recording and playback devices? Last year we had King George VI dreading stepping to a microphone during a live radio broadcast; three weeks ago we had J. Edgar Hoover wire-tapping all of Washington; and this week we find silent film star George Valentine (Jean Dujardin) having nightmares about losing his voice entirely when the studio system abandons silent cinema. Like George in his day, we are all sometimes reluctant to abandon a technology we’ve mastered for one that’s new and seemingly more complex. Or do you think there’s something more to George’s reluctance to be an early adopter of sound cinema?

STEWART:
First, Ben, I’d like to note that audio devices have played a major part in two high-profile NY theater productions this month—Krapp’s Last Tape and Misterman. Do you think there’s some cultural significance to this non-coincidence? No? Well then, anyway, yes, I think there’s something more broad at play here than technological anxiety: The Artist is about a man who needs to “find his voice,” as it were—to find himself—and about the woman (Berenice Bejo) who helps him to do it. It’s form matching content. Sure, this is obviously a movie about a medium in transition, but unlike the Hollywood Reporter pull-quote that claims such a background “adds contemporary relevance,” I don’t think the filmmakers actually develop it as a theme. It’s more a simple plot mechanism, no? The Artist is lovable not because it’s intellectually engaging but because it’s so emotionally so: because of its unabashed sentimentality, its aesthetic daring (for an Oscar contender, anyway), and its frequent visual panache; that image of the woman sticking her arm down the sleeve of a hangered coat and embracing herself is one I won’t soon forget. Did you read it as a metaphor? A woman in love with an “empty” man, or something?

SUTTON:
Not really, Henry. That scene—which, you’re right, was brilliant—struck me as another reference to the talkies, like a more obvious production code-era way of signifying masturbation without spelling it out (see: that infamous sequence in Written on the Wind), hence Peppy Miller’s (Bérénice Bejo) shame when she gets caught. And speaking of highly sexualized and disembodied limbs, how about that tap-dance-off between Peppy and George in which we only see the former’s legs as her upper half is hidden behind a studio backdrop? I can’t think of a scene in 2011 that more blatantly baited feminist film critics with the spectacle of a love interest reduced to sexy limbs. But this isn’t “Mutual Feminist Film Theoristbation” (which, hot!), it’s Mutual Oscarbation. Besides, The Artist compensates for its early-going misogyny with the ascendancy of an empowered female film star (complete with cosmetic Marilyn-style beauty spot), one who gets the studio to sign off on her pet project, an Astaire and Rogers-style tap-dancing extravaganza. Towards film’s end, as the power dynamics increasingly favored Peppy, I was continually reminded of another epic inter-generational backstage conflict movie, All About Eve. With so many allusions to Oscarbaiters of old and, as you mention, its completely disarming sentimentalism, The Artist strikes me as the strongest Best Picture contender we’ve considered so far this season, and I’m pretty ok with that.