In a featurette on the making of the film ‘The Artist’, actor James Cromwell, who plays Clifton the chauffeur remarks about the film, ‘What’s exciting about it is you have a movie using the techniques that were in use in the 20’s and 30’s to tell a contemporary story to a modern audience, and that’s why the picture is as great as it is’. In other words, ‘The Artist’ is, in many ways, an exercise in transposition.
Director Michel Hazanavicius manages to take a timeless and therefore contemporary love story set in 1920’s Hollywood and successfully transpose it on to the screen (mostly) without the aid of two staples of modern filmmaking: spoken dialogue and colour. This bold experiment has been met with extensive critical praise and awards. Earlier this month it received 7 BAFTA awards in the UK, and it has been nominated for 10 Oscars in the US.
Through the success of the film, Hazanavicius has been introduced to much of the world, but he is already well known in France for his spoofs on James Bond, OSS 117. ‘The Artist’ is far from a spoof, but it has a similar lighthearted and whimsical feel. In fact, the lack of cynicism and unselfconscious nature of the film are almost as striking, if not more so, than the lack of audible dialogue and colour.
‘The Artist’ transports us into a world simultaneously strange and familiar. As the film opens in black and white, a shift in expectation occurs. There is a sense in the audience that we are about to experience something significant and substantial. The sense of displacement continues as we realize that what we heard was true: there is no spoken dialogue. And yet, even if we’ve never seen a silent film before, we know of them and so it feels strangely familiar.
A danger of transposing into a novel key, like silent film, is that, in doing so, the novelty will wear off before the film finishes. However, the sheer heart and sincerity in this film lead the audience to stick with it. Having said that, in a number of cinemas, people walked out and demanded refunds because they didn’t realize ‘The Artist’ was a silent film and, as such, felt like they had been deceived.
What they missed was witnessing Hazanavicius’ ability to create, in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, a ‘secondary world’ with an internal consistency so powerful that suspending our disbelief that a silent film could be interesting is unnecessary. The world of ’The Artist’ is one as Tolkien said, ‘which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside’.
I can understand people being put off by the sometimes jarring silence and monochromatic palette of ‘The Artist’. It runs counter to our expectations of what a film is or ought to be. All the more so in the past few years when going to the cinema brings expectations not only of rich colour and digital surround sound, but three dimensions. However, if we can put those expectations aside long enough to meet the main characters and see how winsome and eminently watchable they are, we discover we have been granted access to a world made rich by the engagement of our imagination and a heightening of our senses.
It strikes me that there may be parallels between ‘The Artist’ and the Gospel. Is it possible that, from the outside, both seem strange and foreign? So much so, that many might not take the risk of entering in to the story? Have we become so accustomed to a kind of technological polish and sophistication that we find approaching anyone or anything that has a ring of sincerity and simplicity as suspicious? What if the Gospel, as it is transposed into any culture at any point in time, will always seem a little black and white and silent at first, but then, once taken on its own terms and imaginatively engaged, reveals itself to be a true and artistic tale full of joy and heart and life?
 J. R. R Tolkien, Tree and Leaf : Including the Poem Mythopoeia ; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth ; Beorhthelm’s Son (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001), 37.