I remember the first time I saw Nosferatu. I was 15 and in the full throws of gothic angst – complete with importance, poetry and pianos. The dramatic German Expressionist stylings of Murnau’s Carpathian landscape, therefore, offered the ideal genre –especially when it came to an extremely teen-friendly subject…..vampires. Made in 1921 in the extremely early days of cinema, the reaches of the film’s influence spread to directorial giants from Orson Welles to Alfred Hitchcock, who were all taken with its pioneering effects like negative exposure, non-stop motion and long brooding angles.
Nosferatu is great for many reasons – not least of which being its uncanny ability to elicit true terror in the hearts of its audience. Murnau’s vampire, for a start is not the romantically conceived dreamboat (or galleon to be periodically precise for Mr. Stoker?) which Hollywood was to later promote. The likes of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price or Gary Oldman all tapped into the seductive qualities that we continue to associate with the Carpathian Count – qualities which, to be fair did tally with Stoker’s (and indeed nineteenth century dramatic tastes for the sexual and demonic) sensual account of Dracula and how he was able to manipulate the young and impressionable Mina. They never chilled an audience, however, quite as much as Murnau’s creation. Count Orlock is a much more ghoulish and feral creature – bald and with actual talons. His teeth are most definitely not sponsored by Colgate in that they reflect every inch of their demonic purpose – as does his hypnotic and truly terrifying eyes as they stare at the viewer with an uncompromising coldness. This one is way more evil looking than the lustrously haired, velvet- robed ones that followed.
What made this film for me was not just the expressionistic stylings or even Murnau’s genius for light and aspect ratios. It was in how he maintained a truly threatening atmosphere throughout the story from beginning to end – not a particularly easy feat given the lack of resources or a sound-effects library to hand. Nosferatu was, and is, after all a silent film and in my opinion, the better for it. It is not the creaking of doors or the growling of Orlock’s voice that chills. It is the absolute silence that accompanies his eyes as they drill holes into you that really scares. It is for this reason that theatre is arguably less successful in immediately reaching its audience via their emotional filters – the ones that are closest to the bone. Watching a story is an intensely visual thing and so having immediate access to facial expressions, together with a really good and followable story is vital to its success.
I was always going to like The Artist I think. It has all the trimmings of what makes for a good silent story – from the great Hollywood star and young beautiful ingénue to the classic capering characters of the suffering boss, valet and clueless policeman (outwitted by a cleverer dog). I, therefore, went into the film with high expectations – expectations which are usually dashed when I come out of such an anticipated experience. What I found instead, however, was a surprise in the other direction in that The Artist proved to be one of the wittiest, warmest and most sophisticated episodes in filmmaking that I have seen for ages. You needn’t take my word for it as this time the Golden Globes have got it right with the film picking up not one but three awards for Best Actor, Best Music and Best Film.
The success of Michel Hazavanicius’ quiet offering is due to many of the same tricks and directorial devices as my beloved Vampire flick. The extra mile though is in the sophistication and ironic inflections that The Artist celebrates. What make this film really interesting, especially in an age that is becoming increasingly dominated by CGI and 3D effects in film making, is the fact that the director is not afraid to be simple in creating effects and playing with the audience’s expectations. This film is not just a silent film: It is a love letter to the genre itself as well as being able to push the boundaries of its tropes by playing with them.
The film stars French actor Jean DuJardin who plays the character of George Valentin- an actor that is loosely modelled on a medley of movie greats from Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn and even Sean Connery (his 007 eyebrow and fishhook corner smirk are particularly well aped). Valentin, a glittering star of the silent movie landscape of the 1920’s comes face to face with the advent of speaking in the cinema and refuses to face it. The story develops along the classic silent movie trajectory with the entrance of the love interest. Peppy Miller, played by real-life wife of Hazanavicius Brazilian beauty Berenice Bejo, is a young starry-eyed girl with big ambition as she manoeuvres herself (hilariously) into acting with Valentin in one of his action-packed pictures. Valentin is mesmerized by her and there is a scene involving his dressing room, a top hat and frock coat that not only pays homage to chaplinesque capering but also blends itself with an extremely tongue-in cheek moment (I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating). Suffice it to say, Peppy’s role becomes larger as the film progresses – turning her into a kind of guardian angel to Valentin whose life degenerates into absolute chaos and despair as the world of talkies threatens not only to overtake him as the biggest star in Hollywood but also to destroy his life completely.
Cue then the next trope in the form of a great calamity that is to threaten the confident stability of Valentin: the Wall Street Crash of ’29 arrives and renders the star broke as well as washed up in terms of Hollywood flavour. Things go from bad to worse as he quits (or less delicately….is invited to quit upon refusing to talk) Kinograph studios to embark on making his own movie which, as luck would have it falls on the same opening night as the rising star Peppy Miller’s all singing all talking flick. Valentin slides further and further into despair as everything goes wrong, including a hilarious scene in which his ever frustrated wife (who spends her time drawing cartoon moles and facial disfigurations on her husband’s image) declares that they need to ‘talk’ – another ironic moment accompanying many others in this clever little number.
The Artist is not just a witty homage to a long lost genre. It is considered and genuinely funny on its own in terms of narrative and storytelling. The dog for one is side-splittingly funny and incorporates Eddie Crane (the unwitting little canine Frasierian brother) as sidekick and best friend to Valentin during his time of success and greatest need. The dog’s love for Valentin is also carefully grafted to the development of Miller’s own adoration of her idol – even as her own success eclipses his. Her depiction of Valentin’s guardian angel is particularly moving throughout his troubles. The way in which Hazanavicius incorporates all of the tried and cliché silent movie tropes (including the dumb policeman and ever faithful valet) and somehow manages to make them fresh is astonishing. It is not simply in the clever little nods to the institution of silent cinema with the many references to the genre; the film could so easily be a smug one by way of insider giggles at the expense of the non-film geek or uninitiated when it comes to the silent film tradition. You don’t need to have seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Americano to appreciate both the intellectual skill and sincerity of the film. The Artist is special because it delights in a rare sophistication of humour, intertextuality and genuinely good storytelling via a medium that has to in many ways undo decades of technological progress. Hazanavicius has made his cast forget all about the drama of speaking in favour of the heightened subtleties of expression.