A picture is worth a thousand words. So how many words is a silent film worth? The Artist is not a movie you would instantly recognise as a writing masterpiece given that there are probably less than 15 words spoken in the entire script. And yet it is superbly written and the screenplay was even nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and won at the BAFTAs. The writer and director Michel Hazanavicius How? Why?
First and foremost is the story. It is a conflicted love story. A love between a man and woman, a man and his job, an audience and a dog. In being so simple to understand there is almost no need to have speech to accompany it. We can empathise with the characters and their experiences purely through the emotive expressions on their faces in the script. That allied to the musical accompaniment, perfectly complimenting and framing the scenes, is the screenplay.
The film itself is based around George Valentin, a superstar of Hollywood in 1927. This is the year that in reality, ‘The Jazz Singer’ became the first movie with synchronised dialogue sequences. Valentin, though, is the star of the silent movie era. He is revered by all and at the screening of his latest hit, ‘A Russian Affair’ he meets a glamorously attractive eager young fan. The headline, ‘Who’s that girl?’ is splashed all over the next morning’s papers much to the chagrin of Valentin’s wife. That girl turns out to be Peppy Miller, an aspiring actress, who turns up the following day at Kinograph Studios to audition for Valentin’s next film, ‘A German Affair’.
The first 30 minutes build the story of Valentin as the star and show a relationship building between a clearly enamoured Miller and a wistful Valentin, unable or unwilling to act upon any feelings due to loyalty to his wife. One particularly poignant moment is where Valentin draws a small mole on to Miller’s cheek to make her stand out as different from all other actresses. His faithful chauffeur/servant Clifton enters as a reminder of the past and his wife.
However, the promise of the future is where the film begins to unravel for Valentin. His boss, the Hollywood film producer, Al Zimmer, shows Valentin a ‘talkie’ and his unwillingness or fear to adapt proves to be the beginning of his downfall. Valentin immediately responds by saying in words, ‘If that’s the future, you can have it’.
The first sound effects (other than music) are significant as his world begins to fall apart. We hear laughter from a group of young female extras seemingly mocking Valentin as he begins to become gripped by paranoia. This is a fantastic use of writing as no words were uttered but merely the addition of laughter is enough to start Valentin’s descent and it also foreshadows the effect of Peppy Miller on his life.
Miller had gradually increased her profile to the point where she was the new star of Kinograph Studios and their ‘talkies’. Coincidentally Valentin and Miller’s new films both open on the same night in theatres next to each other. Miller’s film, ‘Beauty Spot’ is queuing around the block as everyone is eager to see this fresh, new star and medium but Valentin’s film, ‘Tears of Love’ is scarcely attended and all of his own money is invested in to this flop.
‘Why do you refuse to talk?’ says Valentin’s wife, Doris. This is one of many double meaning allegories throughout the film. She wants to leave him. He wants to leave her but won’t. He is also refusing to talk during the films. He refuses to acknowledge his feelings towards Miller. He refuses to accept any help or take any advice. Even Miller herself says in an interview, overheard by an angry Valentin, ‘Out with the old, in with the new. Make way for the young’, which is an allegory for her succeeding Valentin as the star, also out with silent films being replaced with ‘talkies’ and also her being romantically involved with young men. At this time the 1929 Wall Street Crash occurs and Valentin loses all of his money. The crash is his life, personally, professionally, and creatively. His wife leaves recommending he goes to see Miller’s film. He refuses to speak to his wife. Meanwhile, Miller had seen his own film and loved it juxtaposing his unbending character to her flexible approach to life. The writing on screen as Valentin dies in quicksand, ‘Farewell Norma, I never loved you’, signifies this life change superbly.
From this point on the film has a different, almost psychotropic appeal as Valentin is trapped. He is finally single but Miller is not. He begins to have drunken hallucinations about ‘Tears of Love’ as he is chased by some characters foreshadowing a sense of death. Here his companions save him. Ever faithful Clinton saves him from his stupor and he goes to see Miller’s film and realises he was wrong all along. However, this does more harm than good as he comes to the conclusion that his life is worthless. The hallucinations get worse and he destroys his house and his film reels and inadvertently tries to kill himself. This leads to his dog saving him in a comically scene with a police officer. Both Clinton and his dog serve the same purpose in different ways.
The sense of being trapped remains though. Miller, still in love with him, takes him in to her house and looks after him after Valentin is found clutching one remaining film reel, ‘A German Affair’, where they first interacted on set. However, her success traps him. She buys all of his belongings out of love as he is bankrupt but he sees this as a slight on the once powerful George Valentin plus the fact that this is still a hugely patriarchal society in 1930s America. He cannot deal with his past life being gone. His suit is gone and he is no longer himself. A policeman talks to him (we can’t hear it) and thus he realises that the world is audible and suddenly he can hear everything everyone says. His silent life is over and he cannot accept the future. He is trapped in the past and decides to commit suicide in his old house. It is this act that proves he can have a future.
Love is the key. Firstly, his dog prevents him from killing himself by trying to stop him. The delay allows Miller, who feels something is wrong, to risk her life by driving to save him as Clinton (who she has also employed) cannot be found to drive her car and she has never driven before. This act of love saves him as we see him about the pull the trigger as ‘BANG!’ appear on screen. Miller crashes the car outside his house. The trapped world collides with the world of love. Comically the dog pretends to die to lighten the mood but the gesture finally proves that love conquers all, ‘If only you would let me help you George Valentin’ appears on screen. And he does. Finally we hear real music and tap dance live as breathing can be heard. And then suddenly, ACTUAL DIALOGUE. ‘Cut. Perfect’, shouts Zimmer, ‘Can you give me just one more?’ Valentin speaks with a heavy French accent, ‘With pleasure’. Hollywood as we know it is born. Valentin’s reservations about ‘talkies’ are unfounded as the mixture of dance and music allows him to be part of this new genre of film-making.
The Artist has only a few words of actual dialogue and I have quoted them all. And yet it is so well-written. Love is the key throughout and it proves that with a story as strong as this you do not need words to describe it. Music, facial expression and mime are all capable of doing this and arguably much, much more.
3 great clips from The Artist