Michel Hazanavicius: Silence is golden for the big noise from France

Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist wowed Cannes and is set to shine at the London Film Festival. Could it spark a revival for a forgotten genre? By Geoffrey Macnab

There won't be many movies that audiences will enjoy more at this month's London Film Festival than Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist. Rapturously received in Cannes, this is a classic tale of old Hollywood: an A Star is Born-style yarn about a slick movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose popularity begins to wane with the arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s, just as that of the Theda Bara-like It Girl Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) rises.

The Artist is a film of extraordinary visual zest, humour and pathos. It also happens to be French-made, black and white... and silent.

Contemporary audiences often tend to feel uncomfortable with silent movies. There is a sense that silent cinema has suffered because it is treated with too much reverence. Films that were huge popular hits in their day are shown in restored versions, with newly composed scores, at prestigious festivals where they're watched by the cognoscenti. The downside is that they've lost their connection with a mass audience.

Gloria Swanson's famous quote, "we had faces then", when she was playing silent star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), evokes a lost era of luminous close-ups. To many viewers today, those faces seem like eerie relics of a lost civilisation.

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s can recall seeing silent cinema regularly on kids' TV. Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd were familiar presences. In the 1970s and 1980s, silent films (and documentaries about silent cinema) were also staples of the prime-time schedules on ITV (for example, the Thames Silents). From today's vantage point, it is hard to envision quite the fanfare with which the first Channel 4 broadcast of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) was greeted in the early 1980s. Gradually, the silents disappeared from the main channels into the twilight world of cable and satellite. Under chief executive Michael Jackson in the late 1990s, Channel 4 stopped its backing of the Channel 4 Silents, thereby ringing the death knell for silent movies on mainstream TV.

The evidence now is that we may be on the verge of another major silent-movie revival. The Weinstein Company will be releasing The Artist in the US in late November, in good time to position it for the Oscar race. With Hazanavicius's film in the vanguard, there is bound to be renewed interest in silent cinema as a whole.

Even without the push given by The Artist, silent movies are back in the news pages. Earlier this summer, there was huge excitement when The White Shadow (1924), a "lost" Alfred Hitchcock film, turned up in New Zealand. Amid the hype, some commentators overlooked the fact that Hitchcock hadn't actually directed the film. It was made by Graham Cutts.

Nonetheless, Hitchcock was the assistant director and was intimately involved in every part of the production. He provides a key link between silent cinema and the modern era. His work is held in such esteem that the British Film Institute's "Rescue The Hitchcock 9" campaign – its attempt to raise £2m to restore his nine surviving silent films – has been treated as if it was a liberation struggle. These films have been locked away in archives and left to deteriorate. Now, supporters are desperate to free them.

At the launch of the London Film Festival programme earlier this month, audiences were startled by the clip shown from Miles Mander's The First Born (1928) In its restored version, the film looked pristine and strangely modern, as if it was a Michel Hazanavicius-style homage to the silent era rather than a movie made more than 80 years ago. Co-scripted by Alma Reville (Hitchcock's wife) and produced by later Ealing boss Michael Balcon, this is an embroiled melodrama about jealousy and infidelity among the West End set.

"The sex lives of the upper classes come under scrutiny in this tour de force of late silent British cinema," is how the festival is billing a film which has a sheen of elegance and sophistication... and even some mildly risqué elements. The pre-blonde Madeleine Carroll (best remembered by most audiences today as the woman Robert Donat meets on the train and ends up handcuffed to in The 39 Steps) is filmed naked in a bath.

As Brian Robinson, Communications Manager, Archive and Heritage, at the BFI, notes of Carroll's bathing scene, "there's a rare nipple exposed in the bath. Nipples were not generally seen [in silent films]."

The honorary Oscar given last year to British film-maker and historian Kevin Brownlow for his "wise and devoted" work in preserving and championing silent cinema was another sign that a new silent-movie revival might be under way. "The silent film was not only a vigorous popular art, it was a universal language – Esperanto for the eyes," Brownlow once stated.

His remark is borne out by the example of The Artist. In normal circumstances, a French film from a relatively unknown director like Hazanavicius (who'd previously enjoyed modest success with his OSS 117 spy spoofs) would be a tough sell in the international marketplace. However, this was a French film without dialogue. So what had, initially, seemed the movie's greatest commercial liability turned out to be an unlikely strength.

"I'd only get an amused reaction. No one took this seriously," Hazanavicius said of the reaction when he first proposed making a silent movie. As it turned out, The Artist sold very widely in the international marketplace. In distributors' eyes, this seemed like a Hollywood film. The presence of actors John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle reinforced its American credentials.

As played by Jean Dujardin, George Valentin, the debonair and dashing protagonist of The Artist, is clearly modelled on Douglas Fairbanks. The irony of this is that Kevin Brownlow is currently trying to make a documentary about Fairbanks through his company Photoplay Productions, and no one will finance it.

Contacted this week, Brownlow pointed out that, while silent movies are still championed fervently by specialist festivals like Pordenone, Bologna and San Francisco, it remains an uphill struggle to get them on mainstream television. He too is hoping that, if The Artist is the major box-office hit that is being predicted, it will kick start a revival of silent cinema in general.

"I'd love to think that is the case," Brownlow reflects. "There is only one thing that would make the difference commercially and that is if it (The Artist) makes an awful lot of money. That has always been the case from the beginning of cinema. As soon as something makes an awful lot of money, people do it again in a different form... so let's hope it does!"

'The Artist' and 'The First Born' screen at the London Film Festival (www.bfi.org. uk/lff), which runs from 12 to 27 October

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'