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Film Review: The Artist

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Wired for sound

Hindsight shouldn’t, in this instance, be confused with post-modernism. There’s no ironic send up of silent film conventions; Michel Hazanavicius doesn’t imagine he’s more enlightened that Abel Gance. When the modern intrudes on the story of silent star George Valentin, and his usurpation by talkie sensation Peppy Miller, it’s to articulate his sense of having no voice in the sound era. The Artist allows us to experience the silent film star’s nightmare – to see and, more pertinently, hear it, for the first time.

In a virtuoso sequence, Valentin’s silent world is plagued by Foley; his brush makes a noise when he knocks it down, he can hear his footsteps as he moves, but he remains mute. The diegetic sound that’s become so familiar to modern audiences is given a sinister, non-diegetic aspect. Once we’re as conscious of it as Valentin, and how novel it is, the audience can have no doubt that this innovation is going to change the movies utterly. There could hardly be a more succinct comment on the transition to sound than George’s unnatural silence. That’s the moment we realise we’re looking at the future Norman Desmond. Even his driver, James Cromwell, looks like Eric Von Stroheim.

It’s a sequence that wouldn’t have been possible in the silent era; it marks its card as a modern movie. Other contemporaneous touches are more subtle but no less astute. The casting of Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin in this Hollywood story acts as a welcome reminder of the internationalist flavour of silent cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. We’re reminded of the universality of silent film; a cinema without borders. When sound finally kicks in at the film’s close, Dujardin’s French accent plays like an earlier intertitle that read “Bang!”. What did we expect him to sound like? Maybe like Douglas Fairbanks, the actor he so closely resembles in his silent adventures – period swashbucklers and Zorro movies, but certainly not like a gallic waiter. The voice we’ve heard in our head, like the voice you hear when you read a character speak in a novel, is replaced. It’s a modern bit of punctuation, an annotation in the margin, which nails the anxiety felt by silent stars at the end of the twenties.

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Directed by: Michael Hazanavicius

Country: France

Year: 2011

Running Time: 100 mins

Certificate: PG

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