Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he sparks with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break.
In this day and age of digital cameras replacing film, special effects replacing live actors,
and motion pictures getting bigger and bigger, to do a movie as simple yet still effective as The
Artist as a silent movie is something that wouldn’t have seemed likely to happen anytime soon.
So imagine my surprise when I hear about this fully silent, feature length black and white movie.
For someone who greatly enjoys silent pictures this was something to get excited about. But does
this silent movie work in 2012 where so many things are different than when silent films reigned
The story itself is nothing new. It centers around a silent movie star, George Valentin
(played by French actor Jean Dujardin), who struggles to survive in Hollywood after the coming
of talking pictures. The movie also tells the tale of a young woman, Peppy Miller (played by
Spanish actress, Bérénice Bejo), who is experiencing a rise to fame as Valentin is going through
The story of the challenge for some actors in Hollywood to survive during the transition
to sound is nothing new. It has been seen before in movies like Singin’ in the Rain. But while the
film may not be the most original story wise it still manages to tell this often told tale well. The
actors are a big reason for this.
Something that can be very distracting in period pieces are actors who really don’t look
like they belong in that time and look like they’re dressing up in their parents’ clothes. The actors
in The Artist slide right into the 1920s and remind me of the film stars of old, Valentin having a
very Twenties mustache reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
The actors walked a fine line in this film with the silent movie acting. In a sound film
that portrays the rise of talkies and the fall of silent pictures it would be easy to show the differences
between the two mediums and show why some actors weren’t able to survive the transition.
After all, silent acting and sound acting are two different types of performing. So when the
transition was made some actors couldn’t adapt their acting style to talkies (and some of their
voices didn’t help either). While this is a silent picture it still had to show the dissimilarities
between the two even though they didn’t have sound to help them. What the actors and director
do is create performances that seem realistic in a real, sound world setting (the characters’ lives
outside of their movies), which was also crucial, but also works when you see silent and talkies
The result from all this a style of performing that is clearly like that which you would
see in a good 1920s silent movie, but still subtle enough to not be ludicrous when applied to real
world settings. Plus, the two lead characters are actors anyway so it makes sense that they would
do things in real life that they might do in their act or in their films.
Focusing on the two principles for a second, both manage to deliver good performances
with Dujardin doing a slightly better job than Bejo. Well, maybe I’m being a bit unfair. It’s not
that Bejo delivers a bad performance or anything; she does a good job at showing a character
who greatly wants to be an actress, succeeds at doing so, rises to fame and fortune, gets a little
smug about her new position, but still wants to help someone who was kind to her in the past
(Valentin). She delivers a good performance with very fine acting, dancing, and pantomime. The
problem lies in that she comes off as a bit one note. While she displays different emotions
throughout the film by the time I exited the theater I felt like her character wasn’t that
memorable and should’ve been more developed. She comes off a little bit too one
dimensional and clichéd.
Dujardin on the other hand is able to give the audience a full, three-dimensional character
without ever becoming just a stereotyped silent movie actor but still feeling like he completely
belongs to that era in Hollywood. He’s helped by his looks of course but he is also helped by his
superb pantomime. The differences in his face from scene to scene always made it clear how his
character was feeling and what he was thinking. In the end he pulls off a performance that is
entertaining yet also heartbreaking and all the time remaining realistic and relatable to the
The supporting roles are also done well. John Goodman (who plays a film studio boss)
and James Cromwell (who plays Valentin’s butler) almost take me out of the movie since
they are well known, modern, American actors who I know and love, but they transfer to the
silent movie medium so well that it doesn’t become much of a problem. It was also a joy to see
Penelope Ann Miller in the movie as Valentin’s unhappy wife. She isn’t given much to do in
the movie and is only in a few scenes, but she does a good job with what she has. She’s someone
who I wish was in more movies than she is, so seeing her in this was a nice treat.
The cinematography is masterful. The use of lighting, camera angels, movements, etc. all
remind me of a classic silent film, one particular example being the old time glowing effect that
used to be seen in old black and white motion pictures. The director, Michel Hazanavicius, really
did his research on how silent movies were shot but also how they were told with pantomime,
intertitles, newspaper headlines, music, and other silent film techniques.
What makes this film really stand out for me, though, is its use of silent movie tropes.
It isn’t just a silent film telling a story the way a 1920s silent motion picture would. It’s clever
in how it uses title and intertitle cards but also through its use of sound. When talking about a
silent picture it seems odd to say that it uses sound well because the whole point of saying that
it’s silent is because it lacks sound. Well, The Artist, while still being essentially a silent film,
does have some sound in it. Without giving too much away with how sound is used in the movie,
I will say that it helps to tell the story of Valentin, an actor who “has no voice” ie isn’t right for
sound pictures. Again, the use of intertitles also helps to show this. In one scene for example
Valentin is speaking to a cop. Instead of seeing the cop mouth something, seeing an intertitle
come up, and then going back to the action like silent movies tend to do, we see the cop mouth
something but no intertitle comes up. We then see Valentin confused and unable to figure out
what the cop is saying. That’s one of the ways that the director uses common silent movie tactics
to tell his story and to talk about its themes.
Finally, what silent film is complete without the music? The music isn’t really
memorable but it’s still good. It does its job of setting the mood and, again, making the movie
feel like a silent motion picture. You’re rather hearing vintage music from the time or newly
composed music that sounds like it. The one odd thing about the music is that it makes use of a
song with lyrics at one point, which is something I’ve never seen done in a silent film. I don’t
really hate the use of this song but I did find it a bit distracting as it was something I wasn’t used
to seeing in a silent picture.
In conclusion, this is a very well done movie but it’s not necessarily as good as it
could’ve been. What gets it down and keeps it from being better is one of the leads not being as
fully developed as she could’ve been and the story being well trodden in the past. But I don’t
think that having a new, groundbreaking story was really the point of this movie or it’s not what
I got out of it anyway. While I wish the story had been more unique, the movie serves as a time
capsule for an era in Hollywood gone by and a style of filmmaking that is no longer seen and one
that I miss. If the movie does make it big at the Oscars and if it enjoys even more success than it
already has and more filmmakers decide to make silent films again then I will be one extremely