C and I went to see The Artist last night. My expectations had been quite high from reasonably consistent and persistent hyping from various sources, but I tried to keep an open mind and not let myself decide in advance whether it would be any good. Expectations are always hard to manage though, and as the curtains contracted the screen down to the classic 4:3, I felt a little moment of excitement, taking me back to my high school years where I had consumed the bulk of Courtenay Place United Video’s “classics” selection, including many fine silent films.
For me, the great triumph of the silent film is the elegance of the thing. They tend to, by-and-large, focus on one or two key arcs, with characters whose motivations and intents are intelligible with very little in the way of dialogue. The trade-off for elegance is, unfortunately, complexity. Metropolis may be the most complex silent film I’ve personally seen, but at the price of length, and even then, a lot of the complexity is inferred behind bold summary statements in the titles.
I think that, rather than sound in and of itself, is what changed in the 1930s. Films emerging in the early 1930s, like The Public Enemy would have been unthinkably long and complex only a small handful of years before. The ability to tell longer more involved stories with larger casts and the additional depth of subtle meaning conveyed by the tone of speech created an expectation of depth, of complexity, of interest and hence, of deeper meaning.
A film like The Artist, is immediately hard up against the wall of modern demands for depth and variation. One thing which it has going for it that no other silent film could have had, however, is the embedded history of cinema, available for The Artist to reference and adapt to give it complexity. It replaces dialogue as such with the language of cinema, common to the Western world at least.
I don’t want to offer a plot summary and delve into the meaning of it all, because I think that first and foremost, Michel Hazanavicius has made a film that’s really a love letter to cinema. The style, the comfortable references, the production design, the camera framing, the acting, the dialogue and the storyline express wonderfully why we love the silver screen. This is the best film I have seen in a long long time. I don’t think it’ll change the world, or change your mind, but if you love cinema, you will love this film.
[EDIT: Here is a somewhat different perspective: http://theabyssgazes.blogspot.co.nz/2012/02/artist-really.html%5D