What is most impressive about The Artist in terms of sound is the way sound works both as a narrative and stylistic element and both as part of the form and content in the film, and how all these elements work together to explore the main theme of the film, pride.
In terms of narrative, it is about the coming of sound to cinema and its effect on an actor. In terms of stylistic elements, although a silent film, it breaks away from convention by inserting sound in the scene depicting the key turning point in the protagonist’s life – the coming of sound (ingenious or not?). In terms of form and content, it uses the silent film genre to tell the story of a silent film actor’s struggle with the coming of sound.
The theme is explored through the protagonist’s big flaw, pride, and the consequences it has on him – an inability to reinvent himself that leads to his demise. This flaw results on him losing his identity as an artist. An artist’s identity and an artist’s voice are terms used indistinctly to refer to the same thing. In The Artist, the protagonist’s voice is used literally as a metaphor for his identity. He can’t find his artistic identity in the new medium, which results in him being unable to use his voice as an actor, that is to speak for the camera.
The Dream Sequence
The first turning point for the protagonist takes place when his producer shows him a sound test. He dismisses this innovation as nonsense and refuses to accept it as the future in the belief that his art is much higher. But behind every overconfidence there’s an underlying insecurity. The protagonist comes face to face with his unacknowledged insecurity through a dream sequence.
In this sequence, subjective sound is used to represent subjective perception and distortion of reality – the actor perceives the coming of sound as a threat. Inside his dressing room, he can only hear the sounds around him, which grow into a nightmarish cacophony, but not his own voice. Outside, what initially appears to be the innocuous laughter of a girl grows into the mocking laughter of several (same) girls whom the protagonist sees as laughing at his inability to talk. At the end of the sequence, the visual of a feather is juxtaposed with an aural bang and used as a metaphor for his perception of the issue at hand – seeing a mountain instead of a molehill. Talking in movies will come very naturally to some but to him it will be an unattainable feat.