What makes The Artist such a satisfying film to watch, and why do so many people emerge from the theatre believing they’ve seen it before?
The film’s success is based on rather more than a counter-intuitive revival of the era of silent movies to entrance us after 80 years of “talkie” sophistication, reinvention and computerised special effects.
If it’s not the silence, the outstanding acting, or even the retro charm of black-and-white, what gives Lithuanian-French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film its magic? This movie set in the 1920s and early 1930s is a masterful piece of storytelling that deserves its Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award, its three Golden Globes and no less than five Oscars too, including best actor and best picture.
Any teller of stories would do well to follow the Hazanavicius principle: stick with the archetypal plotlines that reflect our collective unconscious, and you can’t go wrong.
Stories that re-validate what’s known to us, are every bit as valuable as pure innovation. That too, was the lesson George Lucas applied when in 1975 he plundered the monomyth concept in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for the essential plotlines in the Star Wars sequence of movies. Likewise, the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix trilogy follows the same tried-and-true pattern.
As viewers, we too are on familiar and very satisfying terrain. The success of The Artist derives in large part from the odd sensation that we have seen this film at least not once, if not hundreds of times before. And we have. The film brings together in almost textbook form the archetypal plots and inversions that made Hollywood such a powerful dream factory. Predictable? Yes. Corny? No.
We know exactly what is going to happen in what is a carefully crafted synthesis of every glamorous Hollywood love story, which takes pastiche to the point of perfect recipe. When an experienced yet proud older man attracts a younger woman, their destinies entwine with powerful consequences for both.
There’s a predictable inversion of roles, as the brightly opportunist young girl (Peppy Miller played by Bérénice Bejo) rises rapidly in the new world of talking pictures. This rise mirrors the collapsing fortunes of the older man (George Valentin played by Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn-like hero of exaggerated charm encapsulating the vanishing era of silent film.
The stages of his decline are as carefully (and predictably) defined as those in Dante’s Inferno: loss of work, money, home, marriage, possessions, pride, servant, identity. Then the would-be suicide and “rescue.” There follows the redemptive and revivifying power of the girl’s love – and the cunning reinvention of the pair, not as talkie actors but as dance-and-tap Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalikes.
With a clear nod to the Hollywood buddy movie, there’s even a four-footed side-kick in the form of Uggie the acrobatic Jack Russell, who almost steals the show from Dujardin.
The plotline is a ‘Tale of the Expected’ that cleverly encapsulates one of the four key elements or tropes in the horizontal Narrative Axis of the three-dimensional Storytelling matrix that I’ve been developing and describing in previous posts and lectures. You can view my earlier posts describing Storytelling, Narrativity, and watch a TED Talk outlining this matrix.
Specifically, the script is a calculated exercise that triggers a Romantic reaction to the narrative being played out. I’ve now reached the point in my year-long Storytelling analysis where we focus on the Romantic trope and its effect on listeners/viewers. I’ve already addressed in part how, in the sphere of public affairs, Romantic narratives can inspire us to change and to believe in better. I used the example of our reviving faith in our own western democracy, thanks to the (seemingly) satisfying upheavals of the Arab Spring during 2011.
But of course, the true terrain of the Romantic trope is the human heart itself.
For a student of storytelling techniques and methods such as myself, the movie in question brings powerful validation of these underlying principles. What’s important is how we respond to Romantic narratives. They give us confidence. They make us active: we want to change the world for the better. We feel satisfied and optimistic. Every journey has its redemptive nature. Our belief in the transformational power of love is reborn.
In this movie we derive pleasure from the narrative because its structure plays out stories and fully completes them in their purest and most satisfying form. Readers of my blogs will recognise at least one of the Seven Basic Plots. Beauty and the Beast is in there, and so too is Cinderella.
In his Quest to find a new way to express himself in a world of speech that no longer needs his art, the hero Valentin must Overcome the Monster of silence. His is a journey of Voyage and Return. And as his new screen partner lives the Rags to Riches scenario, he himself experiences Rebirth. Comedy, of course, abounds, for this is a process of setting a disordered world to rights.
Expressed this way, the plot sounds predictable, even dull. Don’t we want to be surprised and thrilled by the unexpected? Yes – but we seek validation too.
The lesson here for corporate storytellers as well as scriptwriters is just the same. Originality is often over-rated in a world where many people are seeking comfort, reassurance, and the fantasy of escape from the humdrum. That, after all, was the essence of the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ in its golden era.
Let’s see how The Artist fares at the Oscar ceremony 26th February 2012. And let’s see whether Uggie the Jack Russell goes for gold when he makes his final bow in Tinseltown – or should that be his final bark?
©2012 Richard House