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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories