Oscar Profile: The Artist

by Tom Ingram

Genre Romance
People Jean Dujardin; Berenice Bejo; John Goodman; James Cromwell; Malcolm McDowell; Ludovic Bource m.
/10 8

A silent film actor sees his career decline with the advent of talkies, while the extra he gave career advice to has become a superstar.

The Artist gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a technical masterstroke. To make a silent movie with the length and complexity we expect from modern movies is obviously a challenge, and in that respect it succeeds. Jean Dujardin will probably win Best Actor, and he’ll deserve it—he’s pulling a lot of weight in this role. But the main thing that it does is remind us that talking pictures were inevitable, and the nostalgia trip that seems to be this past year’s movie theme is futile.

The original movies didn’t have sound because the technology didn’t exist yet. Recordings were expensive and bad, and there was no way to sync them up with the film anyway. A few resourceful people (like Georges Méliès) found ways to make entertaining spectacles despite this, and for a short while we had silent films.

But film sprang, more than anything else, from theatre, and we’ve had talking plays for centuries. An actor’s voice is their most important resource. This is why when you take away the visual dimension, as in radio drama, the result is less caricatured and more dignified than silent movies. In fact, while movies like The Artist and Hugo are reviving silent films as a mere curiosity, the other day I heard a new episode of The Vinyl Cafe on CBC radio, a show that’s been going strong for God knows how many years now and doesn’t show signs of letting up.

Audio recording existed in a larval form at the time, and film’s progenitor heavily involved sound. With the benefit of hindsight, the inveitability of talkies is obvious. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Movies have now been talking longer than they were ever silent. Today, film occupies the same role opera once had: the king of all arts, uniting them in a synergistic whole. The best films exhibit sublime mastery of drama, music, painting, writing, and staging. Without sound this is not possible.

In many respects, The Artist is a good movie. The cast—aside from Dujardin, who’s unknown outside France, there’s James Cromwell, John Goodman, and others—does a good job of communicating without arm-flailing. Ludovic Bource’s score, as the only sound for most of the movie, is subject to more scrutiny than most film scores, and for that I applaud him and the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra. However—and there’s no delicate way to say this—silent film scores are almost invariably annoying.

It’s well made, but The Artist is ultimately nothing more than a gimmick. It’s unlikely we’d even be talking about it if it was a traditionally-made movie with the same story. It should come as no surprise to us that the long-term audience for silent movies these days is extremely small. That doesn’t mean you can’t see them at all. The increasing choice that modern technology gives us means that if you want to see the old silent films, nothing is stopping you. The work of Georges Méliès exists on DVD. The symphony orchestra where I live is having a screening of Buster Keaton’s The General with live musical accompaniment, and I assume similar things happen from time to time in other places.

Most people won’t watch silent movies on Netflix or buy the Méliès DVDs, though, because—sidebarring the historical interest—our modern films are better. Did cinema lose a certain naive charm when it transitioned to talkies? Of course it did. But look at what it gained.

Up for:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius)
  • Best Actor (Dujardin)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Bejo)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Hazanavicius)
  • Best Original Score (Bource)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Editing