On paper, Michel Hazanavicius‘s The Artist looks a fairly difficult sell. Tell anyone you’re off to see a black and white, silent movie that runs over 90 minutes long and they might look at you with a mix of pity and downright confusion, and it will probably take a Herculean effort by Warner Brothers and The Weinstein Company to convince audiences to come out to see it. But make no mistake, the film is as good as any cinematic experience gets, and will have a far more lasting effect on the world of film than any bloated 3D “epic” that screens out here.

The Artist is an infinitely charming, and incredibly clever homage to the Golden Age of silent film: as authentic and believable as if it were made circa 1927, right from the opening credits which are so subtly unquestionable that you’re immediately gripped by the glamour and romance of the era, before we’ve even met a character. When we do, it’s Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin, an intoxicatingly charming mega-star of the silent period, who has the whole Hollywood world on their knees before him – the film subsequently charts his peek, before the advent of the talkies arrives, and he finds himself cast out overnight in favor of the new breed of speaking stars. Along the way he meets Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller, a wannabe who miraculously finds her way to stardom when she bumps into George during a photo shoot, and takes her fate in her own hands to ensure she makes a career of the brief fame that follows.

If you still aren’t convinced, wait a few days: I guarantee that only a very small minority will have anything bad to say about the movie. It really is a triumph.

The film is a tale of two-million-dollar faces, starring alongside some reliable Hollywood stars and giving the performances of a life-time, an unbelievably successful score, a compelling storyline and a commitment to authenticity that includes some wonderful humor, and the subtlest pastiche elements that are utterly believable. Firstly, we must mention Jean Dujardin, a stalwart of French film, who channels the ghosts of Clark Gable and more appropriately Douglas Fairbanks to offer a walking, none-talking personification of Golden Age charisma and panache. He is breathtakingly good as Valentin, in both the high moments, when his flamboyant swagger disarms, and the lows, when the tragedy of his fall requires a more humanist side, and his performance is so authentic, you could easily believe he had been working this way for years. Alongside him, and also brilliant is Berenice Bejo as the young starlet who represents Hollywood’s new direction, whose ability to segue from moxy to pathos, combined with her striking beauty, make her a genuine leading lady, who will no doubt now find herself inundated with job offers.

Both actors are charged with convincing the audience using only facial expressions and movements, which must take some learning for stars used to freely expressing their emotions through dialogue, and their successes must be judged specifically in that context, making them all the more astounding. Dujardin in particular is a master of expression, both on-screen in his films within the film, and off, when he must find a different, and slightly less exaggerated repertoire to convince and convey the tone of the action. The man is a genius.

Hazanavicius must be praised for fitting the right faces to the project: aside from the million-dollar faces of Dujardin and Bejo – both of whom have that certain timeless look, which convinces of their vintageness – the director has also cast John Goodman, who looks the part of the Hollywood producer before he even makes a gesture, James Cromwell, who adds brilliantly balance to the excesses of his fellow characters and Penelope Ann Miller, whose several brief appearances present the emotionally tragic consequences of Valentin’s career and success. All in all, it is a roundly successful main cast, rounded out by yet another astounding performance, this time by Uggy the dog who has incredible comic timing, and is a very good boy.

Authenticity is key here, and everything fits, from the actors’ appearances, to the great costumes and sets – theirs is a commitment to the Silent Film Spirit that is astonishingly thorough, and upon which the weight of belief rests easily. Hazanavicius even went to the extent of using real vintage footage of silent films, super-imposing Jean Dujardin to add an extra level of authenticity, and it is obvious that the director has produced not only a brilliant work of art, invested in its history, yet still completely engaging for modern audiences, but also a work of passion.

That the film is so convincing and so engaging despite the lack of dialogue is an unquantifiable triumph (and when the only sounds other than music are included, they are so perfectly pitched, and so completely disarming that their simple appearance is hilarious), and a huge verification of Hazanavicius’s faith in the project, when so many might have dismissed it without a thought. Part of that success comes down to the score – a major part of the silent film genre of course – which was put together with artisan precision by Ludovic Bource in far more testing circumstances than “normal” films require. For The Artist, Bource had to capture the feel of the era, to pinpoint the spirit of silent film, as well as capturing the essence of each character, and trying to convey the emotional bent of each scene; heavily referencing major film composers of the 1920s as well as working closely with the director pre- and post-edit to make sure the score fit the visuals like a second skin. And what Bource and Hazanvicius have created here is just incredible: if the immediate audience response weren’t proof enough, I know find myself humming some of the compositions long after leaving the cinema.

Say it quietly, but we might be looking at not only a Palme d’Or winner but also a genuine contender for Oscar recognition (at least in the shape of nominations, surely) when February 2012 comes around. Indeed if the Palme d’Or was decided on audience reaction, and the ferocity of the applause that greets the end credits, The Artist would have just been crowned supreme victor on the spot. For an audience that is notoriously willing to voice their disapproval when the selectors get something wrong (as with Southland Tales), to see the entire audience rise as one to show their appreciation of your film must be one of the most uplifting experiences for any filmmaker. For that reason, this is arguably the only time I will ever be envious of those attending the “official” red carpet Premiere, where they will be invited to share their opinions with the filmmakers and stars in situ.

Let’s just hope The Weinstein Company has something special up its sleeve to make sure this beautiful film is seen by as many people as it deserves to be. Because if they do, we might well be looking at the past for a new way forward for cinema.

The Upside: Perfection is a difficult goal to aim for, but Hazanivicius has achieved something approaching it, thanks to his commitment to authenticity, and to his ability to get the very best out of his leading actors.

The Downside: A minor point, but at 100 minutes, some might feel the tell-tale numbness of butt that indicates a film is a little on the long-side. Not me though, I wanted to go in and see it again straight away.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for more on-site observations. You can also check out my other filmic writings at ObsessedWithFilm.com.

Cannes coverage continues…


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