Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist – A Closer Look
Michel Hazanavicius is a brilliant filmmaker, an equal to Murnau and Hitchcock in his ability to compose images that propel a story forward. There is no “fat” here. It is obvious that not a filmic second is wasted or ill-placed. The film plays out with the terseness of a Fred and Ginger musical, a classical symphony. It is probable to me that Hazanavicius meticulously story-boarded the film in great detail. What else could explain the remarkably short time it took to film it – in little over a month. And every scene was carefully timed in advance to be a part of a “greater flow” – the unfolding and progress of the film.
Sizes of objects/people in the frame are important, as is its composition and “contents”. Brightness and contrast of the image, and the direction (left or right) the characters face is important in describing the situation and their inner feelings, or psychology. For instance, facing left has a negative, contrary aspect; facing right has a positive, affirmative aspect. Softer contrast may make a scene more dreamy, romantic; stronger contrast may make it more static, immobile.
Hazanavicius also makes use of tinting the image so that there are a variety of “black-and-whites” – yellow, red, green and a neutral black-and-white define certain scenes or groups of scenes. He does this very subtly, such that most people are entirely unaware of it. These colors may also add to the “feeling” of the scene.
The absolute separation/irreconciliation between Valentin and his wife is underlined by the fact that they are never together in the same shot, even when they are having a direct confrontation. By comparison, Valentin and Peppy (the primary love-interests) are seen together in the image frequently throughout The Artist. The ogre-producer (played by John Goodman) is similarly in the frame, and with his employees, often dominating the scene with his bulk and dark form, underlining his omnipresence in controlling everyone’s destiny. When Valentin entertains the crowd outside (below the theatre marquee), Hazanavicius keeps the energy level high by varying Dujardin’s acting style: For closer-in shots the acting is more naturalistic. In the long-shot (where the whole group of people can be seen), Dujardin over-acts, laughing in all directions and putting on marionette-like faces. This serves to fill the greater area with a greater energy. The eloquence of Hazanavicius’ filmic understanding is absolute. The film never stalls, not for a moment. And if there is a wait, a pause, it too is “understood” by Hazanavicius.
The beginning of The Artist – a film within the film – encapsulates in miniature the greater narrative of the whole story: George is commanded to speak as he is receiving electric shock-torture in his ears at the hands of some evil Russians who are interrogating him. At the end of this clip, the dog saves him – just as it does later near the end of The Artist. Similarly, George’s wife screams at him, “Talk to me!” (an obvious double meaning), and then throws a newspaper at him – the newspaper a symbol of public opinion that will later turn against him. When the two of them are eating together, El Greco’s View of Toledo can be seen ominously behind the wife, presaging, together with his wife’s disapproving stare, George’s own demise.
The scene with Peppy Miller amorously clutching Valentin’s suit-on-a-coat-rack is a brilliant piece of Magic Realism. Miraculously, Peppy’s right arm suddenly becomes eight inches longer as she grabs her own behind. (The humerus bone of her upper-arm becomes longer, if you want to be “anatomical” about it.) Most people are entirely unaware that this is a trick shot, much like what a magician would do on a stage. Bejo’s disarming and convincing performance is better understood because it is actually someone else’s hand that is grabbing her a—. The scene has an eroticism seen more often in European silent films than in American silent films. (Think of Louise Brooks or Marlene Dietrich.) Graphically, the lightness of the arm and hand as it reaches out from the dark flatness of the coat rack resembles an over-sized penis with a hand at the end of it. The penile suggestion is undeniable considering the context of where it appears – vertically at groin-level – and then what it does next.
(As an aside, this scene could also be interpreted as graphically showing Peppy Miller’s own obsession with money, fame and power – the outer coverings of George Valentin at the beginning of the film. When he loses these things, he has nothing left. He is like a balloon with nothing in it – why doesn’t he just get another job and stop feeling sorry for himself? – and Peppy is shown clutching this “covering” (the suit-on-a-coat-rack) as if this is all that she cares about. But The Artist is an old-fashioned love story, and does not judge it’s own characters.)
Now let’s take a closer look. One can analyze a film by comparing characters and scenes in it to what would happen in the real world. The difference between these two things is where the analysis is. When we do this, the characters in The Artist become almost absurd, and further reinforce Hazanavicius’ mastery in telling a story so well that most people won’t even notice the unrealities, or care about them:
1. Peppy Miller’s dropping her purse and then bumping into Valentin would surely have been seen as a pre-planned publicity stunt by the film studio (just to be “seen” and break into the movies maybe?). Surely the over-controlling ogre-producer would have given a copy of the newspaper with her photos to the security guard at the film studio entrance with the express order to “not let this woman in under any condition”. But what happens? Peppy strolls into the studio without a hitch. She has no wait before her audition, no giving of her resume to anyone, and just happens to be at the front of the line when a man asks for “two women who can dance”. Luckily for Peppy, the two girls next to her look like two bimbos. Peppy does “her thing” and . . . she’s got it ! No problem. Within a few filmic seconds she is already on a set for a movie with George Valentin. Now how did she do that?
2. Reality can also be questioned when Peppy visits George in the hospital. Sure, George is not a likeable man, but after reading about his accident in the newspaper, it is hard to believe that no one would be visiting him. When Peppy arrives it is like an empty stage. The whole scene is bathed in sunlight as if the two of them have already gone to heaven. Not a single person is there in the waiting room to see him, and only a doctor and nurse are in his room. Just like Peppy’s audition at the studio – no wait, no line, no problem.
3. When Valentin gets Peppy’s phone number, he never calls her. In fact, he doesn’t even like her. Especially when he sees her as his competition and nothing else. He thinks she is a nobody. The “point of no return” for him is when he finds out that the opening night for her film is the same as his. You see her from behind, next to her film poster, promoting her film to someone. George doesn’t even speak to her, wish her well, whatever. He ignores her. For him, insult is added to injury when she indirectly bad-mouths him during a radio interview.
Back to the phone number. Women don’t like to be ignored and not called. (Maybe that was why she “got even” with him over the radio?) After being ignored, and certainly after the confrontation in the restaurant, she would have “written him off” once and for all, and moved on with her life. But no. She goes to his house to apologize personally. That wouldn’t happen. She collects his personal belongings at an auction. That wouldn’t happen – the last thing she would want would be any object that could remind her of him. She wouldn’t want that stuff. But this is a character that is so “squeaky-clean” and perfect-in-every-way that you could never dislike anything about her (maybe something of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music?). The only thing she lacks is a cape and leotards so she can fly up next to Superman and save the world from all bad things. Her love for George is also hard to believe because George is not likeable. He is self-centered, vain, spoiled, inflexible and has no friends except his butler and dog. When he throws the butler out, only his dog is left. He says to his producer, “people come to see me” – not a good movie, not a good story, not other actors, etc. He never has a single conversation with anyone else in the film, even if they try to talk to him. Yet Peppy loves him absolutely, perfectly, saving a place for him no matter what. Wouldn’t happen, would it?
Returning to Hazanavicius’ mastery of telling the story visually: When Peppy enters Valentin’s dressing room, she dominates the room by almost doing a 360° stroll in it. When George enters the room, she almost completes a circle around him. Hazanavicius encapsulates in space-movements in this one scene how Peppy actually dominates the film as a whole. Her film titles – seen on movie posters – further describe her, such as Guardian Angel and Beauty Spot. (These posters [George's and Peppy's] are omnipresent throughout the film, and echo the characters and events as they unfold.) Similarly, when Valentin does his I-imitate-you, you-imitate-me dance with Peppy, her legs stick out of the bottom of a painting of sky and clouds. These visual devices, like the prominently featured song Pennies From Heaven, echo and redescribe the Peppy character. The song itself could just as well have been called Peppy From Heaven.
(Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Hazanavicius may also vary – in obvious ways and subtle ways – the actor’s make-up as another way to emphasize psychology and situation. In the scene before Peppy’s “ascent to stardom” [through a series of magazine covers] she is seen in her dressing room, heavy with thoughts of Valentin. Her skin is darker than normal [ruddy] and contrasts with the set behind her. Does her dark appearance underline her preoccupation with Valentin, or did Bérénice Bejo just have a really good tan that day?)
4. The dog is the smartest character in the film. In fact, Uggie is a genius-dog, with telepathy. And it can read human thoughts, even before a human will act on them. And it has a sense of humor. (I’ve never met a human who is that smart or interesting.)
5. Valentin, descending into alcoholism, schizophrenia and hearing-loss over a two-year period would be a pretty hard fellow to rescue. But Peppy does it, no problem. The very next scene after he almost commits suicide has him dancing like Fred Astaire as if nothing happened.
I can imagine an artist’s cartoon-rendition of an angelic Peppy Miller, with wings, chasing after a balloon with line-moustache on it – what these characters look like to me “under the magnifying glass”. But Hazanavicius is not concerned with reality. Just like Murnau, he is telling a story in pictures, just like walking through an art gallery from one picture to another that tell you a story. If the “extras”, the details, do not directly contribute to the story, Hazanavicius intentionally leaves them out.
The end of The Artist, like Sunrise, leaves in us, the viewers, a sense of relief and anxiety. Yes, we have our “happy ending”, but like looking at a Magic Realism painting (that also has realism) there is something unsettling, “suspicious” about it. Hazanavicius further elaborates: The very last shot of The Artist shows us the entire film studio stage-set, with its employees, about to do another take of the scene we just saw. It is as if Hazanavicius is saying, “The movie you have just seen is a creation of the human mind, a creation of the filmmaker. You take from it what you will. You believe of it what you will.”
Peter Lavetti is an artist and photographer. His website is www.peterlavetti-art.net.