The Director of 'The Artist' on How to Make a Modern Silent Film

This joyful, raved-about work shows that old movie mediums can live on

levin_the artist still 615.jpg

The Weinstein Co.

Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist serves as a powerful counterargument to the idea that movies as we once knew them have died in the digital age. Celluloid might be headed toward extinction, but if The Artist's facsimile of silent cinema is any indication, there were always be a place for movies that are shot on film stock, or at least those that closely mimic its look and feel.

This much-hyped experimental film, which arrives in New York and L.A. theaters Friday alongside a swell of Oscar buzz, offers a near-perfect encapsulation of what makes silent cinema endure. It apes the expressionistic creativity afforded by the silent form with sleek lighting schemes, dramatic close-ups, and meticulously developed informational visual cues.

Hazanavicius, the French director best known for his work helming the revival of the OSS 117 spy series, develops a simple, classical narrative that harkens back to the earliest days of cinema. Set in Hollywood, the film follows silent matinee idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) as he gives young chorus girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) her break—and then watches helplessly while her star eclipses his, and films with sound become ascendant.

Still, Peppy loves and cares for George, never forgetting her debt to him.

Here, Hazanavicius speaks about the challenges of making a 21st century silent picture, and the great improbability that said film would be at the center of the Oscar conversation.


What is it about the silent form that resonates in 2011?

The format allows you so many things. The way it works, how the audience participates in the storytelling process, you put your own imagination in the movie. For every single person, that makes the movie very intimate, because there's so much of yourself [in it]. It's a great experience. It's a very different experience. It's a sensual experience.

How does the silent form ask more of the audience?

The less you do, the more the audience does. I'll give you an example, which is really one of the first lessons of cinema you can have. In M, the Fritz Lang movie, you see the [killer], he grabs a young girl in the city, and he goes with her into a kind of garden. The young girl drops a balloon and the camera follows the balloon. You don't see any kind of violence. We just follow the balloon.

"The fact is, it's so unrealistic to show people that talk and you can't hear them. You don't ape reality, you create a show that is a show and knows it's a show."

If you ask people after the screening, "What did he do to the young girl," everyone will say what [seems] worst [to] himself. … Because everyone does the job [of filling in the blanks].

What effect does that sort of abstraction have on the overall experience?

[Audiences] know real life is not black and white. So they recreate the color. They recreate the sound of the city, for example, the sound of the cars. Nothing is false, because you do it. You do it not very precisely. You just imagine it and you accept it. So you put so much of yourself [that] at the end of the movie, the movie is yours for real.

You stick to the characters. You stick to the story. I think you're much more involved in the storytelling process. It looks like it's very intellectual and you have to do a lot of work, but it's not. You do it very naturally. You have to remember that these movies were made for people much less educated than we are. For common people, it was a very popular medium.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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