When was the last time you played charades? That’s the party game in which players take turns miming a word to their team. Were you any good at it? I gave it my best shot and was still mediocre. Miming had its origin in ancient Greek theatre where an occasional silent character acted only with a mask and gestures.
Here is a related question: ever heard of Michel Hazanavicius, the French film director? Like all filmmakers he had an urge to make a completely unique movie that would show audiences how vast the possibilities for film can be. Hazanavicius gambled his reputation—to convince a film company to fund his dream. The result was a mimed film in 2011 that won over a dozen awards from Golden Globes, British Academy of Film and Television Arts,British Academy Film Awards, and (American) Academy Awards. Wow. That is more than many directors would hope to get in a lifetime. What is this film? The Artist.
The Artist is now out in DVD, and I admit I knew nothing about it before sliding it into the machine. This film is not just silent, black & white, and melodramatic; it imitates the best silent films in the 1920s and early 30s, in story, acting, theme, and music. Why does this odd film triumph?
(1) Hazanavicius–he wrote his own screenplay, and his weird idea worked great. That is creative genius.
(2) Music—crucial because that is all the audience hears—was based on great silent films, yet mostly composed and recorded for the film. The speakers in my TV sweated to get the full range of this powerful, action-implying music.
(3) Story—Valentin, a celebrated silent actor, is shut down by the advent of ‘talkies.’ He drops into self-pity and his end looms. Peppy Miller, the newly discovered actress playing beside him in his last film, secretly loves him, even as her career climbs in sound films. Gradually, she intervenes to save Valentin, but he can’t grasp her love beyond his depression. It takes 45 minutes of miming for them finally to get together. The conclusion is highly satisfying, but I won’t spoil it for you.
(4) Peppy Miller—vivacious, natural, and cute—mimes the character of what Scripture calls a minister of caring—one who loves her neighbor as herself. Like the Bible wants marriage to be, Peppy’s compassion for Valentin trumps her romantic attachment to him.
(5) Valentine’s tiny, faithful mutt stays with him in thick and thin, finally alerting the police when Valentine burns his personal film-copies and is overcome by chemical smoke. The poochie suits the silent screen so well, that his trainer should have gotten an award.
The Artist gives the impression that the world hasn’t gone down the tube after all. Maybe clear-thinking, loving people still outnumber confused, self-centered people. Sound-voices are used in two discrete places: when Valentine dreams of being ruined, and at the film’s close. A Must-See.