An Exercise in Transposition: Reflections on ‘The Artist’

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’.[1]

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?

[1] J. R. R Tolkien, Tree and Leaf : Including the Poem Mythopoeia ; The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth ; Beorhthelm’s Son (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001), 37.


  • Cole Matson says:

    Thanks for this, Dave. I’ve been debating whether or not to see The Artist, and this post has tipped me over the edge of “Yes”!

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Instead of saying ‘Bravo!’, let’s pretend I’ve held up a black and white sign with the word. But seriously, I think you will enjoy it.

  • Maureen says:

    I saw this movie yesterday afternoon and found it a delight, not in the least off-putting. The film gives attention to tiny details (e.g., names of storefronts passed by the ‘The Artist’ while he’s out walking; these give insight into the character’s feelings), references bits like “I want to be alone” that are fun to pick up, is well-acted, has just enough twists to keep interest, and leaves viewers with a wonderful feel-good ending. It was a lovely experience to let the narrative, and not the sound, be the focus.

    • Dave Reinhardt says:

      Glad you enjoyed the film, Maureen! Do you think it’s possible you noticed the ‘tiny details’ because of the defamiliarising effect of the lack of spoken dialogue and colour? That the absence of these things made you more aware of the visual cues and clues that were given? Also, when you say the narrative (not the sound) was the focus, do you mean that you found the story to be so well told and acted that you almost forgot the fact that it was a silent film? I found it interesting to see what effect the silence of the film had on the acting. I would agree that it was good, but it was good for the medium. If the acting had been the same and we could hear the dialogue, I think many people would have found it ‘over the top’.

  • Sara Schumacher says:

    Thanks, Dave, for an interesting perspective on a great film. In light of your suggestion that the strangeness of the film could be similar to the strangeness of the Gospel, I’m wondering if you could push it one step further and consider the moments in the film where spoken dialogue was used as a breaking in of the familiar. In the case of the film, the familiar signified something important for the viewer. Maybe another connection to the Gospel/Incarnation – God breaking into our world wholly familiar?

    • Dave Reinhardt says:

      I think you’re on to something here, Sara. I’m trying to figure out how to reflect on it, though, without giving too much away! [minor spoiler alert] The breaking in that you talk about was simultaneously strange and familiar. It was familiar in the sense that we expect spoken dialogue in a film, but it was strange for two reasons. One, we had been conditioned to not expect to hear words. And two, most people probably didn’t expect the words to sound like they did. Both of these judgements of familiarity and strangeness are based on expectations. When it comes to the incarnation of God in Christ, something similar is at work. Taking the form of man made Jesus eminently familiar to humanity, but discovering that he was fully God and man was, for many, unexpected bordering on impossible, for others outright heretical. But again, somewhat like the film, those who allow their expectations and pre-conceived notions to be challenged, discover that God’s chosen form of self-communication is not only comprehensible, but simultaneously surprising and wonderful.

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