The Artist (2011; dir. Michel Hazanavicius) exemplifies both the virtues and limitations of silent film. Its plot is highly reminiscent of the three versions of A Star is Born, except that this one offers a happy ending. Except in a few scenes, there is no sound in the film, which is made in black and white and which features many of the techniques we associate with silent movies. The two lead actors, Jean Dujardin, who plays George Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo, who plays the aspiring actress Peppy Miller, show how effective silent film actors could be in conveying emotions and speech through gestures, facial expressions, and posture. Their names are emblems of the film eras they represent in The Artist: Valentin’s name is reminiscent of Rudolf Valentino, and of an entire era of heroic swashbuckling, while Peppy is more suggestive of the sound film—her name lacks class, perhaps, but it expresses the “pep” and vigor that increasingly characterized sound films of the 1930s. The plot is formulaically standard: an established and highly popular actor befriends a young woman by inviting her to join the cast of one of his films as a dancer. As the silent film era comes to an end, his success as a Hollywood icon fades, while hers rises. After his studio fires him, Valentin tries to make a silent film on his own. It’s a commercial failure. He loses all his money and begins to drink. Several years later, Peppy tries to rescue Valentin and his career. Each character seems to have been secretly (and silently) in love with the other since their first meeting.
The Actor is great entertainment. As much as it tries to commemorate the silent film era, it uses a number of methods we’d identify with contemporary films. For instance, the film represents the dawning of the sound era by having Valentin in his dressing room begin to hear sounds. He responds to it as an alien phenomenon, and he’s never able to adjust. Even when he tries to speak, he can’t, and we never hear his voice. For that matter, we don’t hear Peppy’s voice either, though she’s making her career as a sound film actor.
As much as I enjoyed this film, it didn’t make me long for a return to the silent era. I’d have preferred to hear the voices of the actors, along with the singing and dancing of their sound era films. The history of film is the history of the technological advances that make film as an artistic form possible. Although silent films continue to be made as a sort of sub-category, and although we can associate the acting styles of such people as Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, and others with silent acting techniques, film as an artistic form depends on sound. Just as occasional black and white films can represent occasional welcome diversions from the mainstream, so can silent films. But for the most part, color and sound are fundamental elements. I don’t long for silent films.