CANNES REVIEW: Satiny Black-and-White Silent The Artist Emerges as a Palme d'Or Frontrunner
In a curious but pleasant development, a latecomer to the Cannes competition lineup, announced just a week before the festival began, has suddenly become a possible front-runner for the Palme d'Or. Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, a silent film shot in Hollywood in black-and-white, screened this morning, and its sly charms seemed to win over a sizable portion of the audience -- including me.
The Artist opens in 1927, just as silent-film star George Valentin (a suave Jean Dujardin, channeling a little Douglas Fairbanks, a little Gene Kelly) is riding high. Two years later, with the advent of the talkies, he ends up broke and forgotten -- though not completely forgotten: A young woman he met while he was riding high, a salty-sweet ingénue named Peppy Miller (played, with perfect sauciness, by the Argentina-born French actress Bérénice Bejo), has become a raging success, and she hasn't forgotten the break Valentin gave her when she was struggling to break into the business.
The Artist harbors shades of Singin' in the Rain and A Star Is Born, but in the end it's its own distinctive creature. For the first half-hour I suspected The Artist would end up being nothing more than a flaky, if enjoyable, gewgaw. But by the end, I was struck by how disciplined it is. Shot by Guillame Schiffman, the picture throws off a satiny moonlight glow. Hazanavicius -- best known for the French-made OSS spoof movies -- keeps a sure grip on the picture's tone. There's gravity in the right places, but mostly, the mood is rapturously light. And the movie is dotted with clever touches that are never overworked or arch: Valentin, after hearing that sound pictures are the wave of the future and laughing the news off heartily, lifts a glass from his dressing table and lets it down with a surprise thud -- the first, though not the last, sound heard in the picture. (Not counting, of course, Ludovic Bource's jaunty, period-perfect score.)
By the end of The Artist, I felt as if Hazanavicius had answered one of my silent prayers: He gives us a dance sequence rendered in long, glorious takes. No crazy cutting to make the steps look more "exciting"; no close-ups of the feet to show us how fast they're moving. I had pretty much given up hope that filmmakers knew how to do that sort of thing anymore.
The Artist is the kind of gentle crowdpleaser that critics -- God help us -- often carelessly brand as "middlebrow," which often simply means (a) they're afraid to admit they had a good time at something or (b) they're reluctant to praise any film that doesn't include peasants living under harsh conditions, troubled children living under harsh conditions, or forlorn married people living under harsh conditions. Another strike against the picture is that it has already been bought by The Weinstein Company. -- that means it must be marketable. (It's worth noting here that the movie's cast includes several American actors: Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller appear in small roles; John Goodman plays a growly-bear studio boss.) As a breed, we critics prefer to champion the underappreciated underdogs, and admittedly, that is an important part of our job.
But please don't hold the accessibility of The Artist against it. Many young people I know laugh at silent movies and silent acting, viewing them as something ancient and foreign, written in a code they can't possibly understand. Silents are stories told in purely visual terms -- there are no handy voice-overs to accentuate what we're seeing on-screen, no hefty chunks of expository dialogue. The Artist, in its joyous, unpedantic way, makes the code of silent movies easily readable and understandable. It begins as a novelty and ends as something more: A movie in which the present greets the past like a long-lost friend.
Read more of Stephanie Zacharek's coverage of Cannes 2011 here.