I watched The Artist during a silent phase recently. Not that I wasn’t expressing myself or talking to people; it was just a time when tranquillity got superimposed over words. The sentences seemed to wait. If what I had to say was happy, then there would be a lingering haze of anticipation. If there was tumult I felt, then it became a silent scream.
Does it mean that I imposed my inner self on the film or did the film awaken me to that silence in a manner where it became deafening? I usually ‘see’ a film to be able to read between the scenes and see through it. It is not a taxing process, for it happens naturally. However, taking this particular movie experience, I think about how instead of cinema manipulating us we manipulate it. This is not about emotions and feelings where we laugh and cry with the characters or at the situations. It is a philosophical exploration of ourselves as observers and the observed.
The Artist appears to be deceptively simple. It is about George Valentin, a celebrated star of the silent movie era, a young aspirant Peppy Miller who does bit roles but is ambitious and loyal. What seems to be contradictory aspects in an industry where stepping on toes is part of the game becomes a revelation about how one in fact emboldens the other, and how trapped we are in ways of seeing.
The moment when she sits in his dressing room and caresses his coat and it morphs into him is about how a fancy can be real, for he comes in at the very moment. Among the barely few subtitles, the one here says, “If you want to be an actress, you must have something that is different” and he takes a make-up pencil and marks a small dot on her face. The kind Marilyn Monroe had. It is a beauty spot; it is also the quiet contribution to her life.
From their unspoken and unexpressed relationship – part of the silence – what emerges are the subtle changes in the outside world. The advent of talking films will spell the death of his career. That moment when he stands before the mirror shrieking and we cannot hear him is heart-wrenching. Had the film not been silent, we would not have heard the scream so potently.
Silence is a metaphor throughout. About gagging of the old era, shutting out, shutting in, and how true fidelity is unfussy and hushed up. The dog stands for it; the Man Friday does and so does the young woman whose love remains leashed but which can be legitimately articulated through loyalty. At the auction, she is the bidder hiding behind the visible bidders. Instead of displaying all his mementoes, the grand statues, the furniture and trying to replace his stardom by replicating him, she preserves them in a room covered with cloth. In the stillness of the room one can perform a post-mortem, but every shroud reveals more than it hides. It bleeds.
It is in these layers of covers, of spools of film, of held-back emotions, of the absence of colour, of the musical as a bridge between the talkie and the silent film, of exaggerated pantomime where only the body speaks words that veins burst.
So, where does the viewer come in? I could have looked at the film as either a brave one or as ‘cute’ or even an interesting gimmick. How did celluloid silence and my own become one? Is there identification? In parts, yes. But it is, as I mentioned earlier, how we ‘characterise’ ourselves through such a symbiotic relationship with characters. It is beyond an “Ah, yes, it could be this, it could be that”. It is a manifestation that is truly unspoken.
From the scream that resonated without a sound to the stillness of the dog’s bark to the frantic appeal of the girl to the tickety clicking of toes and heels in the dance, I realised the preciousness of what we speak when we do not speak at all.