Nostalgia in the Time of Talkies

The new silent flick ‘The Artist’ is a nod to Hollywood classics

December 22, 2011

Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius embraced cliché in “The Artist.”

When the inevitable holiday cabin fever strikes and your family tries to escape with a trip to the movies, entice them to “The Artist” with this line: “It’s a silent film about silent films; it’s in black and white; and there’s tap dancing!” When that doesn’t work, assure the kids that there’s no kissing. And then tell them about the really funny dog. That should do it.

On the surface, the surprisingly appealing, deceptively simple film (opening Friday) is about George Valentin, a silent-movie actor (Jean Dujardin) who falls out of favor when talkies take over. His career path crosses with that of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who rises from obscurity to take the silver screen by storm. The story sounds familiar, and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius likes it that way.

“There’s a lot of cliché in the movie. I really didn’t want to put some irony in it,” says Hazanavicius, whose goal was to emulate classic silent movies not only technically, but also plot-wise. “That kind of pure love story, old-fashioned with some kind of melodrama, it really speaks to the way that the stories are told in the silent movies.” Essentially, “The Artist” isn’t a silent movie simply because there’s almost no dialogue; it’s a silent movie because it tells the same stories those early films told.

That doesn’t mean Hazanavicius longs for the days of intertitles and shaky organ music. The film is crammed with allusions to the great films of classic Hollywood. “There’s a lot of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ — Billy Wilder is my favorite — there’s a lot of ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ some ‘A Star Is Born’; there’s the music from ‘Vertigo’ at the end. It’s not an homage to the silent era — it’s truly about Hollywood.”

The most obvious allusion, though, was one that was entirely unintentional. George’s canine companion is a wirehaired terrier, the same breed of dog as the one that belonged to Nick and Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” series of films. “I’ve never seen ‘The Thin Man,’” admits Hazanavicius. “People say ‘The Artist’ is like ‘The Thin Man,’ because of the dog. But it’s a coincidence.”

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