Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It was produced in France but got out of Best Foreign Language Film jail because, being silent, it doesn’t have a ‘predominantly non-English dialogue track’. It’s always described as a silent film, but it’s more closely related to movies of the sound era about the transition from silence to sound:
Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born (any version) and Sunset Boulevard being the obvious ones. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent movie star who is sometimes like Douglas Fairbanks, sometimes like Gene Kelly, whose career slides with the coming of the talkies, while that of the flapperish, younger actress who loves him thrives. It’s entertaining, rather too aware of its own charm, and not really silent at all: there’s music on the soundtrack and words at crucial moments, and the intertitles are positively chatty (especially compared to Murnau’s Last Laugh, which has only one).
It’s pleasing, however, that a French director should have made a silent film that sighs for the end of an era in Hollywood – and be rewarded for it by Hollywood. The arrival of sound in the late 1920s was as big a problem for European film studios as it was for silent stars with disappointing voices. The great products of German expressionism, particularly those produced by UFA (Murnau’s Faust in 1926, Lang’s studio-crippling Metropolis in 1927) were so expensive they had to do as well as American films to make their money back, and they couldn’t.
In an interview with Sight and Sound, Hazanavicius said that one of the ideas he’d had during the film’s ten-year gestation was to set it in Berlin with a hero based on Lang, ‘because the movie could start with expressionism and finish with the arrival of the Nazis, which was parallel with the coming of sound.’ He decided against this, though: ‘I didn’t think I could ask people to come to see a silent, black-and-white French movie and make it so sad.’ And, Hollywood self-regard being what it is, a film like that probably wouldn’t have been nominated even for a Foreign Language Oscar.