Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist may be the first ‘silent film’ made in America to trouble the attention of the Oscars committee for several generations; and yet, paradoxically, no other film this year pays such close attention to sound. It is the absence of sound that first makes us pause. As the film begins, we find ourselves caught in a mise en abyme: in a cinema, watching an audience in a cinema watching a silent film. So the sound of your traditional silent film music comes as no surprise. It is only when this film ends, and the film music with it, and the camera pulls back to reveal the wildly applauding audience, that we are confronted with the curious horror of nothing to hear. Wherever we expect sound, we are confronted with its absence (elsewhere, the music stops just as someone puts a needle on a record, for instance).
We have just about got used to this uncanny reversal when the beginning of the second act is announced with a dream sequence. More properly, a nightmare. It is a nightmare, precisely, of synchronised sound. For what could be more horrifying to a star of the silent screen (such as our George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin) than the sudden coherence of sounds with their source. A glass falls and clinks against a wooden desk and the sound – because it is the first sound ‘effect’ of the film so far – is like a knife in the ear.
George Valentin, our titular ‘artist’, is haunted throughout the film by the traumatising power of the voice. What becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses is that it is not any particular quality of the voice or any given enunciation. It matters not what the voice is saying. It is the horror of the voice as such: the voice in its orality, the infinite demand of its insistent address. While the musical soundtrack (almost) literally never shuts up with its endlessly signifying chain of references to classic Hollywood scores, the voice remains that which says nothing, communicates nothing.