This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Artist, has arrived on Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Ent.) looking just as dazzling at home in all its retro glory. It’s still an amazing achievement and what an underdog story: a black and white silent ode to Hollywood made by a French director with two French stars up against the best that our current film industry has to offer. We needed to look back before moving forward in these uncertain times; and somewhere the ghosts of the silent era were smiling as well.
The story behind The Artist is recounted in the bonus features (“The Artist: The Making of an American Romance” and “Hollywood as a Character: The Locations of The Artist“). But here are some glimpses of my interviews with director Michel Hanazavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman.
“[Silent movies] are not old because they are silent; they are old because they were made in the ’20s,” insisted the director. “Well, the technology’s exactly the same as it was in ’20s: you have a camera, you have actors. You are not forced to use 3-D and to use digital. You can do what you want with technology. To me, it’s not a technical challenge, this movie. The technology and the technique are very simple, except maybe for the writing. It was very difficult and challenging for me because the most complicated thing is to make it simple for the audience. They want character and they want a story: they don’t want to see a performance; they don’t want to see how difficult it was or how clever it is.”
Hazanavicius set the visual tone for every scene, which was built around the art direction, costumes, and lighting. And Schiffman turned it into a code predicated on the rise and fall of silent star George Valentin (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin). It was a back to basics approach in which Valentin was depicted at the outset in crisp black and white and got grayer and muddier as the film progressed. The more dramatic, the greater the presence of shadows; the more comic, the lighter in tone it got. There was also greater depth of field for comedy; and a very shallow perspective for tragedy.
“The staircase sequence when he goes down and she goes up is important in selling the theme of the story,” Schiffman noted. “Every morning Michel would remind me of the importance of lighting in telling the story. Jean is more of a comedy actor, and this was the first time I saw him in my camera in a melodrama, so it was very emotional for both of us as we looked at each other.”