I didn't get much sleep last night. I was kept awake thinking of
a film – "The Artist" – I had just seen. It stands out, even in the harsh light of day, as one
of the very best of the many movies, silent and sound movies alike, that I've watched over the past 60 years.
Although the widely-acclaimed movie was made this year, "The Artist" is a silent film, except for an excellent
music soundtrack that sounds like the live orchestral music that accompanied major silent films. That practice ended, of course,
with the coming of talkies.
That's the movie's major theme, the end of the silents – a theme
it handles even better than other excellent films covering the topic, such as "Singin' in the Rain." I won't
go beyond noting the theme, for fear of disclosing the plot, but, believe me, it's a very well-plotted and well-acted
It was filmed in the United States, and two of its co-stars, Penelope Ann Miller and John Goodman, are American,
but it's really a French film. The director, Michael Hazanavicius, is French, as are the two lead characters, Jean Dujardin
and Berenice Bejo. They play it straight with none of the mugging and exaggerated gestures that were common in the silents
But, boy, do Dujardin and Bejo look like the silent stars of yesterday, he classically handsome with
pencil-thin mustache playing a silent film idol in the late 1920s, she with the pert, almost always-smiling look of a twenties
flapper seeking film stardom. Their acting is indeed special, as is that of an incredibly talented fox terrier named Uggie,
Dujardin's romping, steadfastly loyal canine sidekick.
All that, and dancing, too – especially the stars'
dynamic hoofing to jazz melodies that could have come straight out of the twenties. They will surely turn you to toe-tapping
and maybe the urge to leap up and do a little body swaying yourself.
The San Francisco Chronicle's exceptional
film critic, Mick LaSalle, describes Dujardin's performance as "extraordinary and lovely, the first truly great silent
film performance in about 80 years." Amen to that, and to LaSalle's assessment of "The Artist" as
"a profound achievement . . . a product of serious study, honest appreciation and love" of silents.
it could even lead to a resurgence of the silent film, a medium that has not been of much interest to contemporary audiences.
For the average person's exposure to silents – if any – has been primarily through the speeded-up, bleached-out,
"sound-enhanced" silents shown occasionally on television, that greatest of all the enemies of thoughtful, imaginative
Watching silents presented as intended is an experience unlike any other, one that brings the actors and
their audiences particularly close, far closer than most sound films. It requires special skills of actors, film directors
and editors, who cannot rely on the crutch of words and sounds to reach the audience.
It requires great involvement
and concentration by the audience as well. Silent film viewers are free to exercise their right to interpret cinematic actions
as they wish, to imagine for themselves the retort of the gun, the scream of the heroine, the lonesome whistle of the train.
They are free to imagine all that's being said, be it in French, or any other language. Silent films are
truly universal and truly a distinctive art form apart from sound films.
Relatively few people have been privileged
to see silents as they were meant to be seen. "The Artist" gives them that rare opportunity.
© 2011 Dick Meister