There is a line in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard which sums up the paradox faced by George Valentin’s eponymous artist, a silent film star at the advent of talkies: ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. Valentin, like Visconti’s fading prince, is a man with everything, yet also a man facing revolution. For Prince Fabrizio, this meant Garibaldi; for Valentin the revolution is sound, and if he wishes to maintain his standing he himself must change. The Artist follows Valentin’s life and relationship with Peppy Miller, a minor dancer escalated by sound to cinematic stardom.
Perhaps the film’s key moment comes as Valentin watches a co-star’s sound test. Upon being asked for one himself he laughs and walks out, uttering the fateful words ‘if this is the future, you can keep it’. This is where Valentin makes his choice, he will not change, he will allow the world to move on around him.
His predicament was one faced by numerous silent film stars as sound arrived, and immortalised by Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. No one wanted a squeaky voiced hero. Careers built over decades could fall in a single mumbled sentence. And unlike black and white films, silent movies never made a comeback after Hollywood abandoned them. Indeed, in an age where directors constantly aim to break boundaries, Michel Hazanavicius’ move seems singularly daring. Silent film has remained virtually untouched for 80 years.
Yet The Artist isn’t entirely silent; there are two points where Hazanavicius switches briefly to sound, and the first is the moment Valentin realises his actions have left him stranded. The sequence is both masterful and telling, not only for the story but as a mark of the quality of filmmaking. I was intrigued to see how silent cinema’s limitations could be aligned with the sophisticated demands of modern audiences; I was not disappointed.
Much of the credit must go to Jean Dujardin, the leading man. The Artist was beautifully shot, paying extended homage to early Hollywood, and featured an immaculate score, but without his comic timing and expressiveness it would be hard to envisage a film nearly as good. He and Bérénice Bejo (Miller) are dazzling together, giving the film immense charm and character.
The Artist is at once romantic comedy, evocation of a bygone era and a study of a man confronting a changed world: a triumphant throwback to 1920s Hollywood. Bring on the Oscars.