Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why The Artist Can't Speak

*This blog post contains spoilers!*

The Artist is, as I'm sure you've heard, a charming film; and it's certainly not the most philosophically complicated piece of cinema ever. But there is one thing that's not immediately clear in the film itself: why is it that George Valentin won't speak? It's not that, as in Singing in the Rain, his speaking voice is dreadful; and it's not like Sunset Boulevard where Norma Desmond's dying career seems like something that happened very much against her will. George Valentin is offered roles in the talkies, but he refuses, and it's never really clear why. Half way through the film, as his marriage is falling apart at the same time as his career, his wife confronts him, and says 'Why won't you talk?' It's a clever play on words: he won't talk to her about why he won't talk in the movies. And here's my theory: he won't talk to his wife for the same reason he won't talk in a film, because The Artist is actually a film about changing gender roles, with the shift from silent films to talkies a metaphor for a shift from a world where Men are Men and rule the world to a world where women are in charge and men are emasculated [Note: I don't actually agree with this version of the history of gender politics in the 20th century].

First of all, notice what happens when we shift from silent films to talkies: first, we shift from films headlined by George Valentin to films headlined by Peppy Miller. The specifically gendered nature of that shift just isn't there in films like Singing in the Rain or Sunset Boulevard. And the genre of films shifts too: all of Valentin's films are action films where he does the manly thing and rescues the damsel in distress, with plenty of swashbuckling along the way. Peppy Miller's films, by contrast, are all romantic comedies, that classic women's genre. In one of them, a man proposes to her and she looks shocked as well as pleased, only to wink at the camera over his shoulder - look, she caught him! Those crafty women with their emotional manipulation.

The exception to this rule is Valentin's last silent film, which ends as our hero sinks into the quicksand. The damsel tries to save him, but he won't accept her help: and this, of course, is exactly what happens to Valentin himself. Valentin has already saved Peppy twice: first when she clumsily and publicly embarrasses herself and he saves her by making a joke of the situation; secondly when he intervenes to stop her being fired from her role as an extra in his film. But George Valentin simply will not allow himself to be saved by Peppy: she rescues him after he nearly dies in a fire, offers to save his career, and buys up the things he is forced to sell when his money runs out. It's this last one which nearly proves the final straw for George: when he stumbles on the room with all his old furniture in he is so horrified that he runs off and tries to kill himself again: better suicide than salvation by a woman! Peppy has to come and save him again, and the least satisfying thing about the movie's end is that it's never really clear why all of a sudden he is prepared to accept her help, which has been so unacceptable up till now. They find, at last, a happy compromise between the two genres of film which lets them both be stars: tap dancing! And then the camera pulls away, and you see why the film's thesis about the end of male dominance is so terribly flawed: the studio crew are (still) all men.


Ben Howard said...

The Artist is about a french actor who was successful "mugging the camera" during the silent films era but could not transition to "talkies" because he does not speak English. I am surprised that this is not obvious to everyone. If you watched to SAG awards, the actor who played George Valentine also did not speak very much English and didn't have much to say while accepting, although, he looked good accepting his award. I think the notion of mugging the camera was made several times throughout the movie and I disagree with the gender politics theory (even though that would have been an interesting dimension, if it were true). Feminism/gender politics is not thesis in this movie because there were other leading male roles after the "talkies"; however, George Valentine just wasn't qualified because of the language barrier (which you learn at the end of the movie, when he speaks for the first time). The story would not have made since if it were about a leading male star rescuing another leading male star (unless it were gay); so, the opposite character had to be female for the plot to flow. I completely disagree that this film has anything to do with a transition of male dominance to female as silent films transitioned to "talkies". That's a major stretch and you must have watched a totally different movie. "The Artist" is about an artist who can't progress to a different media because of the language barrier and his thick french accent in American films.

Marika said...

I think you're right that if there's any reason why the Artist can't speak that's internal to the logic of the film, it's his accent. David Haglund wrote a good blog post about it here:

But I don't think that makes me wrong about the role of gender in the film! I'm not saying that the actual, historical shift from silent films from talkies was about gender politics; I'm saying that this film version of that shift is, on one level at least, actually about gender politics.

Carl said...

Like black and white, the film exhibits a series of stark polarities Silent vs Talking, Male vs Female; but also Older vs Younger; Stubborn vs Resilient; Old Media vs New Technology; Rising Star vs Falling Star. Peppy's love for George overcomes all division and wins our hearts -- long before it wins his. To understand that the lead character is fluent in French and not in English illustrates a further dimension of the silent/talking polarity, but its the young female rising star's devotion that illustrates the principle that all divisions are temporary, especially success and failure. George "believed" in his success and doomed himself; whereas Peppy's love for George deconstructs the illusion of success even at its most seductive.