Michel Hazanavicius is a master of the homage. By that I mean he is an incredibly well-versed movie nerd, approaching cinema history as gospel; the movie house his cathedral. His latest film, The Artist, is a love letter to Classical Hollywood Cinema, that bygone era since obliterated by the New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s. The film follows the travails of a silent film actor during the rise of sound in the early 1930s and is itself a silent film, in black and white, in the legacy 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
It seems there is a question as to whether or not audiences will actually go and watch a silent film, but I think it’s a foolish thing to wonder about it. There was a golden age of silent cinema for a reason. We have outgrown that form but we’re not immune to enjoying it. If you can get a modern moviegoer to sit down and watch Battleship Potemkin or, better, The Last Laugh, I think that most people would actually have an enjoyable time. The form can be timeless, but Hazanavicius offers us something much more palpable than reminiscing over times gone by. He has given us a film that is eminently watchable, engaging for both the armchair historian and the blockbuster-goer alike.
In cinematic terms, modern conventions have allowed filmmakers and audiences to lull into laziness. Widescreen formats, color film and bloated soundtracks have allowed us all to neglect convention without much consequence. A terrible cut can be corrected (or bandaged) with the right sound effect; a vertical frame is more difficult to fill than a wide one; black and white art direction can be more nuanced than color.1 Where some may see nothing but challenges in silent filmmaking, Hazanavicius sees opportunities. Like a blind man who elevates his hearing, Hazanavicius’ other sensibilities congeal to become pitch perfect. The Artist is an exercise in montage, a wonderful use of imagery to tell a story that is exciting, new and repeatedly surprising.
I should mention the most exuberantly non-silent aspect of the film, the music of Ludovic Bource. Much in the way that Hazanavicius is a master of cinematic homage, Bource has composed an impeccable score that shines throughout the film. The music rises and dips and twirls with our main character. Just like the visuals, the music is both modern and derivative (sometimes explicitly). It’s absolutely charming and the film would be nothing without it.
The question remains: will anyone actually see The Artist. I most certainly hope so. At its core, it is a heartfelt film with all of the elements modern moviegoers enjoy at the movies: love, drama, laughs and a spunky Jack Russell Terrier who deserves an Oscar nod. If people aren’t lining up to see it, it will be a real shame.