There was a moment during this film that was so completely surreal for me. About halfway through, as the audience had settled into a somewhat comfortable (yet grudging) acceptance of watching a movie with only background music and no talking, I happened to glance across the aisle and spot someone “signing” to another person. What caused me to look over at this point in time and catch that exchange, I don’t know, but I was fascinated that even in the silence, there were conversations going on and ideas being exchanged without words.

I was also struck by the realization that perhaps each of us was watching the film from a completely different perspective and yet, the audience’s reaction at key points in the plot was fairly universal. There was shared laughter, uncomfortable silence and even gasps or sighs during some scenes. And this was all accomplished with virtually no sound except the musical background. Amazing really.

Read my lips

The movie largely emulates the silent movies of the 1920’s, where the actors’ lips are moving but the film cuts away to a “slide” with words showing a summary of what they are saying. It’s more like a modern day PowerPoint than the more sophisticated sub-titles we see today on foreign language films. To sit through more than an hour and a half of a “silent film” might be a challenge for some. At the beginning, I was a little impatient with the pace but then, things started to take shape.

Jean Dujardin
Did I mention that Dujardin is gorgeous?

The movie tells the story of George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) star of silent movies, comfortably famous and in control of his career and his life until he accidentally bumps into a young dancer/actress named Peppy Miller (a dark-eyed beauty named Berenice Bejo). Suddenly, everything is unsettled as the married Valentin is unexpectedly attracted to Miller and finds himself going out of his way to make sure she gets a role as an extra in his film. But, the appearance of the young actress is the beginning of his own decline as the movie industry evolves and introduces the technology of “talkies.”

Given a boost by Valentin, Miller’s career takes off and the two go their separate ways. There is no torrid affair or infidelity, but it’s clear that they are in love. Valentin’s marriage begins to deteriorate. The scenes of he and his wife sitting in silence are painful to watch and the soundtrack achingly reflects the unhappy tension.

Throughout the movie, the music takes you through a hit list of emotions. I think the audience is always aware of the soundtrack of movies in our modern times, but when everything but the soundtrack is removed, the role of the music becomes stunningly clear. I don’t think I’ll ever watch a movie again without paying attention to the soundtrack.

As the story continues, Valentin is given an opportunity to make the transition into the “talkies,” but he turns his back on the technology. He believes that his fans don’t want talking and that they will stand by him. He empties his bank account and produces his own silent film, while Miller’s new “talkie” debuts on the same night. It’s a given that when it comes to being entertained, fans are always looking for something new and unique. Valentin is left broke and his pride prevents him from admitting his mistake and asking for help.

Jack for best supporting actor

The film uses clever techniques to move the story along, incorporating messaging in ways that probably harken back to the days of silent films. There is a wonderful crispness to the black and white picture that likely wasn’t available in the 1920’s but otherwise, the movie is likely pretty true to the spirit of the times. The audience is totally swept up in the story before long and the role of the dog, “Jack,” in pacing the film is indisputable. I’m sure the decision to go with a Jack Russell Terrier is no accident. I don’t think there is a more universally lovable breed of dog out there!

The Artist is very pleasing to watch and there are some moments where modern technology intrudes into the film and it is actually quite shocking to the system! I found the storyline a little troubling in that Valentin is devastated to discover he has a “guardian angel” in Miller. His male pride is so wounded by being bailed out of his troubles by a woman that he turns a gun on himself. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that I was a little less than sympathetic to his plight, but I guess that was the way I was supposed to feel at that point.

It’s an interesting depiction of how we often resist change and then, to “save face” after having resisted, further allow ourselves to be left behind. This is a theme all too relevant in our ever-changing world, where new technology is constantly challenging the status quo.

I’d recommend the movie to film buffs but would suggest seeing it on the big screen. Watching this at home on the couch might not work as well. Being in the theatre with other people makes you appreciate the skill and artistry involved in making a film like this, both now and back in the days of truly silent films.

See the trailer here:


3 thoughts on “Movie Review: “The Artist” has a lot to say for a silent film

  1. Absolutely bursting to see this film but it doesn’t come out in the UK for weeks. Lots of Oscar buzz surrounding it, but from above it looks like it’s worth it and the silent/BW aspects aren’t just cheap tricks!

    1. Nothing cheap about the silent/BW aspects… very thought-provoking. Definitely go see it. Thanks for reading and commenting on the blog and let me know your thoughts after you see it!

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