The story of The Artist will have a happy ending

The Artist has just swept the nominations at the Oscars and I’m betting it will win an award for its script, so why was it a week ago I was asked “it doesn’t have words, what if we don’t enjoy it?”

My girlfriend asked me that, but I felt the same. I know, if I was some highbrow type my immediate reaction would be to scoff, but it was a concern – an hour forty and no one speaks, we’ll be bored!

We were wrong on both counts – there is some speaking, and we weren’t bored by a long shot.

No one hates being wrong, or at least my instincts being wrong, so I did what anyone else who’s slighted would do – I analysed the film to find out who was right, was it a good story or was I caught up in the hype?

George Valentin & Peppy Miller

The Critic

Spoiler ahead – I am an over-analytical pedant. Also, I reveal a lot of what happens in The Artist so if you’ve not seen it, go ahead, you’ll love it. Why? Well because it has a great, classic story, and here’s my summary for why I think the script will win for those who want to get back to their tea or coffee:

  • Good, simple, universal plot
  • Clear goal with a hint at the start
  • Heroes we care about who are forced to make choices
  • Good supporting characters
  • Secret holding the hero back
  • Ending is foreshadowed and weaved into the plot

The Meat

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a classic love story – so classic that the hero George Valentin barely kisses Peppy Miller. But it is a classic, central story question – will they get together by the end? There is a hint at the start with a first, opportunistic, one-sided kiss – will it become mutual and warm by the end?

Likewise, the plot is fairly simple – will George Valentin, booted out by a film studio (personified by John Goodman as Al Zimmer) ever get back on screen again or will he stay washed up in the talkie age?

Nothing says 'washed up' in the 1920s than a man with no tie

The Heroes

We have two good central questions, one of plot and one of story. But we only care if these are answered by people we care about, which we have in Valentin and Peppy. So how to care about people we can’t understand?

Simple, Valentin talks in laughs and with his dance at the start, his actions with his dog onstage – and who can hate a man who loves a dog? Peppy meanwhile has a warm smile for everyone – as well as real dance talent. However, annoyed at Peppy pushing his studio’s latest film off the front page, Zimmer throws her off the set.

Then, as with any good story, the characters have a choice. Valentin chooses to defend her and gives her a chance to defy Zimmer. Peppy chooses to accept, despite the risk.

The Story

Once we see the high life of George Valentin, we see the change that will destroy and with our knowing of ‘the future’ of talkies, we know it’s coming. In a similar way we see a Mrs Valentin who shows her contempt not in words but defacing her husband’s photos, a running gag with a dog that diffuses tension in a key scene.

Even at the end, when the promise of a one way of getting Valentin back on screen has been knocked back, there’s a trump card

The Crux

What I loved is its use of show over tell. How does writer-director Michel Hazanavicius show how loud the audience applause is? By the Valentin’s reaction. How does he show that Valentin falls in love with Peppy? Over three takes of a ballroom scene in which he progressively draws Peppy in closer and lingers longer. And how does he show he loves her? The reel of those takes is the only thing he saves from his burning apartment, he’s found clutching it – and Peppy finds it and knows.

The dream sequence even shows something – not just clever (and rare) use of sound, but it shows us Valentin’s fear of talkies despite how he acted to the studio.

The Finale

Opportunistic now, but what about by the end?

Even at the end, when the promise of a way of getting Valentin back on screen has been knocked back, there’s a trump card – his dancing feet. What’s clever is not just that we saw them both dance well at the start, but that this initial revelation was an important scene, demonstrating how well they danced and their feelings, as well as setting up a then-important plot point. Other writers (myself included) would have a simple demonstration of skills simply to give a reason for having it later, having it as a plot point is the work of a master.

Finally, there is the big reveal – Valentin’s only spoken words are heavily French. But his choice of words (“with pleasure”) also show how he’s changed from an arrogant actor to a more accommodating man.

The End

So, a classic story that fits the stories of the period to just in way it’s presented, even down to the black and white and 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a love story that is near chaste. It tells a good story by showing.

That’s why it’s doing so well ($33m to gross so far), it is a simple story – story being love. If you’re a writer, not a film exec. I don’t mean that film execs don’t do love – maybe they don’t, I don’t know, I’ve not progressed far enough to meet one, maybe they have services for that – but for an elaboration on why I use “story” see this for the difference between writer speke and producer speke see this.

So I was wrong, it was a good story, not hype.

The Challenge

It made me also think of a test – could the stories we write be put into a silent film and if not, why?

Similarly, what is your favourite non-speaking sequence?

For me it has to be the beginning of 201: A Space Odyssey. All the more remarkable when you read the initial Arthur C Clarke script with its narrator, and how Kubrick tells its story for 45 minutes without words. But that’s for another post.