Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist: A New French Cinema Golden Age?
Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and John Goodman as Al Zimmer in The Artist, Warner Bros., 2011
by Meaghan Emery
Every once in a while a film comes out that breaks through conventional wisdom. The idea that a black and white silent film in 2011 could be such a resounding critical and commercial success, in addition to its prominence in international film festivals, six Césars, and now five Academy Awards for best picture (the first time ever for a French film), best director, best actor, best original score, and best costume design, who would have thought? Most importantly for Michel Hazanavicius, writer and director of The Artist, producer Thomas Langmann thought it possible. Langmann first agreed to take on Hazanavicius’s long-time dream to produce a silent film and then sought the backing of American producer, Harvey Weinstein, to distribute it in the United States.
The film’s magic, which won over the producers, the actors, other members of the crew, and finally the audience, is woven into its script. Just as George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), his own star fading, contemplates the meteoric rise of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and is warmed by her unexpected but welcome loving embrace, viewers—thirsty for adventure—have been bedazzled by the picture’s crisp freshness. Like George, we are ultimately eager for a hand to take our arm and guide us into a new “Golden Age” of cinema, or at least be tickled by this fanciful notion. We might not realize this at first, nor that our Peppy is the playful manipulation of the image and musical score, so key to early cinema before the talkies arrived in 1927, when The Artist is set. But this is the irony of this love story, which depicts a key transition in film history, when the phonogenic Peppy Millers or more opportunistic Constances left the silent era George Valentins in their wake. This is proof of cinema’s power to make us dream the improbable.
However, it is not a picture thoroughly ensconced in the old artful trappings. Hazanavicius and his director of photography, Guillaume Shiffman, were mindful of the contemporary audience; and their play with lighting and framing in order to convey a mood, together with Ludovic Bource’s musical score, speak to 21st-century tastes as much as paying loving tribute to cinema’s origins. Precisely because it is not a throwback to 1920s cinema, it cannot, therefore, be evaluated along the same lines as the films of Frank Borzage or F.W. Murnau, whose silent classic Sunrise won the first Academy Award for unique and artistic production in 1929. As much as the legendary greats of the silent era inspired The Artist’s production, it is a film that speaks to us today: one of the basic tenets of the cinema industry, whose lifeblood comes from its success as mass spectacle.
As much as I agree with David Denby of The New Yorker, who concludes: “But, apart from a few such brilliant bursts of invention [as the nightmare scene], The Artist is an amiably accomplished stunt that pats silent film on the head and then escorts it back into the archive” (“The Artists” 78), one has to come back to the implausibility of such a production today in order to gauge its success more deeply. Hazanavicius has accomplished no less than every film auteur’s dream: to make a picture with a select cast and crew and to galvanize public enthusiasm because of and not in spite of its cinematic “stunts.” Audiences throughout the world have delighted in the story and in the art form: the photogeneity of the actors; both the vividness and the subtlety of their acting and chemistry; the beautiful rendering of the black-and-white images; the music, powerfully communicative yet not overpowering; the playful and witty interruptions of the soundtrack, such as in the nightmare scene in which George has “lost” his voice. It is therefore its transcendence of the archives that makes it a memorable cinematic event.
Although the film is set in 1920s/1930s Hollywood and pays tribute to American film history, rather than Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain (1952), it reminds me of French greats such as Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas series (1913-1914), René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1929), or even Marcel L’Herbier’s Fantastic Night (1942). All three films are landmark French productions, the first a suspenseful melodrama that breaks with naturalistic literary formulas, the second a transitional piece between silent and sound cinema, and the third an occupation-period tribute to French cinematography and the spirit of the silent era. In all three one finds a carefully elaborated cinematic space, reminiscent of the earliest cinematographer, Louis Lumière, but also Jean Renoir, and equally characteristic of Hazanavicius, whose use of foreground, background, and the diagonal gives depth and perspective to the individual shots.
The Artist, Warner Bros., 2011
Regarding character, The Artist’s male lead embodies the panache and magnetic charisma of Fantômas, the pre-World War I master criminal. Valentin’s self-assured bravura fills the frame, whether shot in close-up or from a distance and enthralls the audience with his every movement and expression. Nothing is gratuitous in this style of acting in which even understatement has profound meaning. The Artist also seems to have captured the irony and intelligence behind Clair’s 1929 mix of image and soundtrack, the rhythm, and—to convey time’s advancement—the use of superimposition and dissolves as well as a close-up on the actors’ legs as they walk in unison. Even the allure of the otherwise very American Peppy Miller recalls physical features of Clair’s Pola: form-fitting hats, curls, beauty spot and all.
My reference to Marcel L’Herbier grows from his film’s overall manner of paying tribute to past legends, in this case filmmaker Georges Méliès. But beyond enshrining a magician and his craft (as Sylvain Chomet’s animated L’Illusionniste (2010) also does remarkably well), The Artist, like Fantastic Night, pays homage to the art of cinematography by liberating itself from pure mimesis. Its diegetic world fully comes into its own. Furthermore, like L’Herbier’s, Hazanavicius’s film belongs to the pictorialist tradition. Just as Valentin’s fall and rebirth are told through darkening grey tones and a return to the light, the use of a medium low-angle close-up and canted framing intimates his downward spiral into madness. One of the most gripping moments in the film is this scene after which he tears his films from their cases and sets them ablaze—another narrative wink to Méliès, in addition to the superimposed Tears of Love hero and savages that harass Valentin’s besieged mind. If only he could just stamp them out!
As a result, The Artist is profoundly representative of the French filmmaking tradition, whereas its Hollywood setting and characterizations give it an American air—all of which makes for a symbolically and materially hybrid production. The story of its production demonstrates its broad appeal to visionary cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning with the French Langmann who then found a partner in the American Weinstein. As though watching the first steps of a love child, born to an odd couple advanced in their years, one delights in the seeming facility and grace of this unforeseeable outcome.
The Americans and the French share a long history and passion for moving pictures. It is a relationship wrought with competition and mutual admiration. For this reason, perhaps the film’s focus on a beautiful woman, whose charms are both familiar and foreign, is a more apt analogy in order to describe the phenomenon of The Artist. Because no one hears the accent, the classical features and gestures translate more easily to a broad audience. Nevertheless, Marion Cotillard’s historic Oscar for La Vie en Rose in 2007, crowning her best actress in a French-speaking lead role, does point to the American public’s receptiveness to great French cinema.
Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller in The Artist, Warner Bros., 2011
French cinema has another appeal to Americans. As Bejo shares in an interview published for the film’s promotion, the possibility of working on The Artist was dreamlike for the American cast and crew members:
What was strange and very exciting was the enthusiasm of the Americans who worked on the film. They said: “We could never do this in the US!” We told them that in France it hadn’t been easy either but they insisted: “We could never do this!” They were absolutely fascinated by the project. Maybe because this film brings us all back to the sources of our profession, because it’s very poignant to make a film about the beginnings of cinema, precisely where it happened. Even if we know the silent cinema well, we’ve all seen the Charlie Chaplins, the Buster Keatons… We love this profession for these kinds of films as well… (“Press kit” 43)
Hazanavicius’s love for the project translated abroad, but as the interviews in the press kit indicate, the film’s success grew from the shared goals of the core French cast—as Dujardin states: “a small team of six French people in L.A., to work with an all-American crew” (“Press kit” 34). Their mutual trust, commitment and generosity (Hazanavicius and Dujardin took a pay cut in order to keep expenses down) made the gamble not only fun, and infectiously so, but also lucrative. This, too, is reminiscent of René Clair, who believed that films were a joint production of all the artists and technical crew, equally deserving of recognition. The advent of the star system that came with sound cinema overshadowed the teamwork.
So is France “about to have a golden age of cinema?”, as Harvey Weinstein was quoted as saying in The Huffington Post. Or, among his other pronouncements, has The Artist “paved the way for another Oscar breakthrough: a foreign film, with dialogue next time, winning the best picture award” or “more silent films and other ‘daring works of art’ to come from Hollywood”? As opposed to the notion of being on the cusp of something new, I would argue that The Artist joins other French landmark films in their surprising ability to fascinate a mass audience with cinema’s long tradition and artistry. Will it invigorate the French film industry? Most definitely so, but with the following caveat, taken from Cineuropa:
If Michel Hazanavicius hadn’t been successful in France with the series of OSS 117films [2006 and 2009], his The Artist would never have been presented in Official Competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Not that the film doesn’t deserve it, but simply because this wild project – a silent tribute to silent movies – would never have found financing while Avatar filled theatres around the world. (“Silence is Golden”)
The same can be said for Thomas Langmann’s financial success in 2008 with Asterix at the Olympic Games and the Mesrine series, which made his support possible. Like Fantastic Night, made at a time when Hollywood films were banned from occupied Europe, improbable works of art are often made in isolation and depend on a gifted, committed cast and the patronage of rare visionaries.
The Artist. Dir. Michel Hazanavicius. Perf. Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, and James Cromwell. TWC, 2011.
Charlton, Angela. “Harvey Weinstein On French Cinema: The Golden Age Is Now.” Huffington Post (March 7, 2012). Accessed March 9, 2012.
Denby, David. “The Artists: Notes On a Lost Style of Acting.” The New Yorker (February 27, 2012): 74-78.
“Sometimes, Silence Is Golden” (October 5, 2011). Accessed March 6, 2012.
Tartar, Andre. “Langmann and Weinstein: The Two Crazy Men Who Gambled Big on The Artist.” NYMag.com (February 4, 2012). Accessed March 9, 2012.
Wild Bunch International Sales. “Press kit.” 2012. PDF file.
About the Author:
Meaghan Emery is an Associate Professor of French literature, culture, and film at the University of Vermont. Her interests range across history, politics, philosophy and sociology. She has written on Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jean Giono, as well as contemporary writers and filmmakers, including Karin Albou, Azouz Begag, Rachid Bouchareb, Martine Dugowson, and Abdellatif Kechiche.