Being new to this whole directing-a-silent-film thing, Michel Hazanavicius apparently "immersed" himself in the genre by watching a hundred or more old films, reading memoirs and biographies of famous directors from the silent era and brushing up on his early Hollywood gossip. (Source)
Sounds like fun to us.
Hazanavicius notes he's met many other directors with the fantasy of making a silent film. "It's the purest way to tell a story," he says. "It's about creating images that tell a story and you don't need dialogue for that." (Source)
Of his casting, Hazanavicius says he couldn't have asked someone like Robert DeNiro to star in his film, even though he "may be the greatest living actor," because he's just too "stone-faced in his acting style." He chose Dujardin, Bejo and Goodman because of their ability to be expressive in their faces and bodies without "pantomiming." (Source)
The Artist may not be a parody like the OSS 117 movies, but it does use some of the same gizmos to imitate the past. Just as his OSS 117 series emulates the 60s in fashion, sets, and even camerawork, Hazanavicius also stayed faithful to the world of 1920s Hollywood in The Artist.
Although Peppy and George's final tap dance would have looked pretty cool in 3D, Hazanavicius refused to use the 3D Steadicam shots popular in today's filmmaking, as it would have been totally out of sync with the early-film feel.
When Michel Hazanavicius was but a young Jewish lad growing up in Paris, his grandfather used to schlep him to see silent movies on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the local cinema. We bet gramps didn't know little Michel'd absorb all that melodrama, slapstick and moody lighting and store it away in his brain nest for his own future creations.
Haz wasn't always drawn to the old glamour of silent film, but he does have a tendency to remake old genres. Before he wrote the screenplay for The Artist, which he completed in four months, he was known for his spy film parodies, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009).
These movies, which were commercially successful in France, poke fun at the OSS 117 Eurospy films from the 1950s and 60s, which take themselves (ahem) a little too seriously, and other popular spy flicks like Hitchcock's North by Northwest and, of course "Bond, James Bond" himself.
Hazanavicius was faithful to the cinematography, art direction and costumes of the 60s in his parodies, and it's this adherence to the ways of the good ol' days that makes his work unique.
One other thing his secret agent spoofs and The Artist have in common? Their stars: Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (who is also Hazanavicius' wife).
His pals and confidants bust a gut when he first told them about his idea to make a silent film (seventy years after talkies took over), but Hazanavicius let their chortles slide off him like water off a dolphin.
Following in the footsteps of his silent movie heroes, directors G.W. Pabst and King Vidor, he began to craft a film that was part love letter to Hollywood, part indie-artsy darling, part charming mainstream movie, all without sound and color—because who needs those things, right?
In the end, the very reason his buddies guffawed at him (his hankering to go back in time) was what made Hazanavicius' movie stand out from the rest—so much so that Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein bought the U.S. rights to the film and released it in America to coincide with awards season. Nice timing.
After producing several dozen French action and comedy films, the president of La Petite Reine, Thomas Langmann, signed on to tackle Hazanavicius' crazy new project—a silent film. In the 21st century.
That's like saying: "Hey, I have a great idea for the new Boeing line. How about a biplane?"
Langmann financed the film out of his own pocket after pitching it to a gaggle of investors who weren't willing to bet their cash on such an old-fashioned genre. They probably kicked themselves or put their feet in their mouths or something when the film went on to win all the awards.
The Artist is a definite change in pace for Langmann and La Petite Reine, whose previous films include Foon (2005), a quasi-musical-comedy-horror movie about high school rivalries between nerds and cool kids with kooky hairdos, and Le Mac (2010), in which a timid banker is strong-armed into pretending he's an infamous, super-slick gangster.
A little different from the homage to old world Hollywood that Hazanavicius dreamed up, but Langmann put his faith in that dream nevertheless, and good thing he did. Needless to say, The Artist was Langmann's big break…and in fact was the first ever Academy Award Best Picture winner produced entirely by a non-English-speaking country.
The Artist is shot in 4:3 ratio and is in black and white, but the editing and cinematography are otherwise contemporary, featuring more camera movement and edits than 1920s films, and a sharper depth-of-field. It uses the tools of new technology to perform an homage to early cinematic styles.
Techniques like the "Iris Wipe" (the circle that gets smaller and smaller) and the double exposure or juxtaposition of images in the montage and newspaper scenes draw attention to film as constructed rather than realist, adding to the theme of performance and cinema as a version of reality.
Remember Peppy's wink in the film? She often throws an exaggerated one over her shoulder in the closing shots of her movies.
Hazanavicius' filmmaking itself can be seen as a series of winks. The movie winks at us when it gives us a close-up on a spinning record (we can't hear it anyway); it winks at us when George's first words are "I won't talk"; it winks at us when the "BANG" of the gun going off is actually the sound of Peppy's car crashing into the tree.
These winks are intended for an audience familiar with the history of silent film, and also those who are new to the medium. The winks say, "Yeah, we know that you know that we didn't have to make a silent film." We're all in on the joke. There's no point in making a silent film today unless we draw attention to the playfulness of its silence.
In black and white films, lighting takes the place of color. The Artist uses light and shadow effectively to create mood, such as when George is in the hospital and it's bright and white—heavenly almost—both to reflect his brush with death and the guardian angels (especially Peppy) who surround him.
In the scene where George discovers Peppy has bought all his stuff, light filters into the dark room through the open door, casting a spooky and somber mood. The white sheets pop out against the shadowy background, calling to mind the ghostly presences of George's past.
And of course, there's the scene where George calls out his own shadow, yelling at it until it walks off the projector screen.
The score in this movie is extra important…because without it, we'd be watching the movie in pretty much dead silence.
The composer is Ludovic Bource, a Frenchman who worked with Hazanavicius on his OSS 117 films. His score for The Artist, recorded with the Brussels Philharmonic orchestra, won a Golden Globe and an Oscar and it sets the mood and drives the movie's narrative.
In the opening scene of the movie, it seems like the music we're hearing is coming from the orchestra pit in front of the stage, where George's movie is playing on screen. It was common for live orchestras to provide the tunes for live screenings of silent films, but this is Hazanavicius' first cheeky nod to the irony of staging a silent film in a sound era.
When the music stops and the audience claps without sound, it becomes clear that we're also watching a silent film, whose only accompanying noise is the score.
It's worth mentioning the only song in the film that has lyrics, which plays alongside Peppy's "rise-to-fame" montage: "Pennies From Heaven" as sung by Rose Murphy.
The lyrics in the song not only draw attention to Peppy's success in talkies but also tell us that, although it's raining real raindrops all over George's parade, for Peppy it's only raining money and heavenly fortune.
If our feelings were musical, what would they sound like? Like "Rhapsody In Blue " from Fantasia 2000 (also set in the 30s), which is like a choreography of city-dwellers through music, The Artist uses music to signal shifts in tone and give insight to what characters are feeling.
When they're feeling playful, like George at his premiere, or hopeful, like Peppy arriving on set for the first time, the music reflects that in a skippy, plucky piano riff. When things get a little more somber—the stock market crashes and Tears of Love is making people cry tears of not love—the score relies more heavily on dramatic string instruments.
Hazanavicius has said that The Artist is a "love letter to cinema," and as such borrows from a number of different sources and styles to create a pastiche of film history. (Source)
The most obvious example is Hazanavicius' use of Bernard Hermann's "legendary love theme" from Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film that, like The Artist, is also about madness, death and the thin line between fantasy and reality.
Kim Novak, who won an Oscar for her role alongside Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, was not so happy about the use of the theme in The Artist:
"I want to report a rape," she announced. "I feel as if my body—or at least my body of work—has been violated by the movie The Artist." (Source)
Others have in turn criticized her statement, such as Guy Lodge from HitFix, who writes that Novak's issue with The Artist is like "complaining that Andy Warhol stole the Campbell's soup logo."
For those familiar with Hermann's famous theme, the climax of Hazanavicius' movie is either cheapened or made all the more layered by it.
Does the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences count as a fan club? After all, they gave five gold statuettes to The Artist at the 84th Oscars…which joined this film's collection of three Golden Globes and seven BAFTAs.
But this movie is pretty recent and pretty straightforward—two things that don't usually make for a rabid fan base. Maybe in a few years people will start dressing up like George Valentin for Halloween, but that day hasn't arrived yet.