Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Artist - Silence as gimmick

This post contains plot spoilers for The Artist.

A  few nights ago The Artist cleaned up the this years Academy Awards ceremony. Hardly a surprise as the majority of the press had it pegged as the favourite. And it's easy to see why. It's an undeniably charming little film. It's central story of an silent film actor's fall from grace thanks to the introduction of the "talkie" into Hollywood is endearing, and the romantic subplot that develops is crowd-pleasingly sweet.

I was not immune to it's charms either. For the most part it is a delightful piece of cinema. I was completely along for the ride, that was, until the end. The climax of the film sees our hero George Valentin finally agree to do a new film which sees him tap dancing away in a musical number. Ok, that's a nice way to end the film.  Over the course of the plot we have followed  George as he stubbornly refuses to embrace the introduction of sound into film. His pride is his downfall, and we watch on as he gradually slips into poverty. But in the end our protagonist finally overcomes his crippling self pride and finds a "talkie" he is willing to participate in. Everybody wins.

That is until the sound continues after the musical number is complete and inexplicably we hear George speak, his words emerging in a thick French accent. Turns out he wasn't a stubborn actor who refused to embrace a new technology. He just couldn't speak fluent English. Turns out that the studio executives didn't write him off as a has-been, they just needed someone who spoke English for their talkies. The "twist" also plays as cutesy. Suddenly giving the world diagetic sound as our hero charmingly speaks his lines in a thick accent. Isn't that adorable?

No. It undermines the entire narrative of the film. And not only that, it turns what at first seemed like a loving devotion and respect to the silent roots of cinema into nothing more than a set up for a cute punchline. As a result the film comes off, not as sincere, but as gimmicky. Admitedly this revel is somewhat forshadowed by a dream seuqence in which George (and inexplicably the audience) begins to hear the sound of his glass as he places it down on the table. This monment is indeed cringeworthy, but as it has little ramification it can be easily overlooked. The finale however, damages the film as a whole. The Artist is still a fun film, I still enjoyed myself. Hell, I'm even keen to see it again. I just wish Michel Hazanavicius had been more in love with silent cinema, and less in love with making The Artist cute and clever, because it was both those things to begin with. It didn't need a gimmick. 

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