Silence is golden for 'The Artist'

The absence of speech creates emotional space in the Oscar front-runner

Silence is golden for 'The Artist'

La Classe Americane/Ufilm/France 3/The Kobal Collection

A year ago, if you had predicted that the front-runner at the 2012 Academy Awards would be a black-and-white, silent film from France starring a pair of obscure actors, people would have thought you were insane. But this week The Artist reaped a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, second only to Martin Scorsese’s 3D children’s fable, Hugo, which scored 11. For the academy, which tends to fetishize its own history, this is a historic moment. Its two most nominated movies are both adoring homages to silent film, a genre that’s been dead for 80 years. The Artist is a French movie (finally one without subtitles) set in Hollywood at the end of the silent era; Hugo is an American movie set in ’30s Paris—wrapped around a tribute to Georges Méliès, a silent film pioneer of optical effects.

The two pictures present an astonishing convergence of cinema’s past and future—between a movie that revives the magic of silent film, and one that uses 3D to restore cinema’s first acts of visual wizardry. In embracing these movies, the academy may be on a nostalgia trip, celebrating a lost heritage in an age of franchise blockbusters. But there’s something else going on. Audiences are discovering the beauty of silence. That’s why The Artist is still the movie to beat for Best Picture. Silence is the new 3D.

From the moment it premiered to a rapturous response in Cannes, The Artist became the year’s most unlikely crowd-pleaser. Essentially it’s a romantic comedy, a frothy confection that poses no challenge to the audience. Despite the title, The Artist is not an art film. It’s the kind of movie Woody Allen would like to have made. In fact, like Allen’s Midnight in Paris (which has four nominations), it’s a reverie for a golden age. But its elegant conceit is more inspired, and instead of an American director rhapsodizing about Paris, we have a Frenchman (writer-director Michael Hazanavicius) mythologizing Hollywood. And nothing, not even British royalty, is closer to Oscar’s heart than Hollywood myth.

Frothy romcoms don’t tend to triumph at the Academy Awards. But The Artist has a unique pedigree. It looks like art: the black-and-white silence confers instant gravitas. Yet its style feels sleekly cool and contemporary. It is, after all, about the modernization of fame: a silent film idol (Jean Dujardin) sees his career come crashing down as his protege (Bérénice Bejo) rises to stardom in the talkies.

All that may explain why The Artist is so fashionable in the film biz, but why it casts a spell on an audience goes beyond style. In bringing a vanished genre miraculously back to life, Hazanavicius has used silence to create emotional space. When a look passes between the leads as they intersect on a dance floor or a staircase, time seems to stop. Despite some comic mugging, the performers generally don’t overact, even when the melodrama kicks in. Dujardin’s acting is especially suave and subtle. “I discovered that silent film is almost an advantage,” he says. “You just have to think of the feeling for it to show. No lines pollute it. It doesn’t take much—a gaze, an eyelash flutter—for the emotion to be vivid.”

The Artist, of course, is not actually silent. Most scenes are boldly scored with music, and from the first ballroom flirtation to the tap dance finale, it plays as a dance movie—tailor-made for an Oscar production number. Dance is also silent dialogue, as Wim Wenders demonstrated in Pina, his exquisite 3D documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders shows that 3D, when used well, is akin to silence; it too can open up emotional space with pure visual movement.

Scorsese does something similar in Hugo. He tends not to use that third dimension to poke us in the eye, but to immerse us in quiet depths of reflection. Developed for action blockbusters, digital 3D is like a military technology that has just begun to fall into civilian hands. For Scorsese, it’s not a gimmick, but a portal into cinema’s deep past. In the same way, the silence of The Artist is not just a retro novelty. It suggests that film needs room to dream, and some quiet to hear itself speak. As for the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 26, brace yourself for a mime routine from Billy Crystal.

Black and white Oscar

The only colour in 1994’s best picture, Schindler’s List, was a red coat that symbolized the blood shed during the Holocaust.

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