Cannes 2011 Review: THE ARTIST - A Winning & Hilarious Homage To 1920's Silent Cinema

rating: 4.5

I walked into the Grand Lumiere for the first press screening of The Artist out in Cannes around two minutes before the 8.30am start (hey - it's not easy trying to get showered and clean that early in the morning when you are staying with three other journalists!) and myself and We've Got This Covered's James Powell could only find a seat right out on the corner of the back row. Sky Movies and OWF's Peter Willis who was also with us managed to dive in and find a seat closer, and Film School Rejects' Simon Gallagher, because of his bloody pink press badge, gets treated like a bigwig and was housed in the Movie Gods section on the lower deck. Do you get a buzzer Simon so you can request popcorn and get it delivered to you down there buddy, cushions & drinks provided etc? (not bitter, honest!) I say all this because I was in a bad mood when I sat down to watch The Artist, annoyed with myself that I had an extra 10 mins in bed which meant that I had to sit three miles away from the screen. But, when the movie started, the screen authentically shaped more in a old fashioned square than filling the widescreen like modern movies, the old gloriously white and epic movie titles popping up with the thesps surnames in CAPITAL LETTERS - a overly dramatic and nostalgic score leading us into the film and my concerns were quickly washed away. This was an opening familiar to anyone who has watched movies from the pre-40's era - and I was totally won over by the magic - a feeling that never subsidised for the 100 minutes running time. As soon as those grand white letters from these titles emanated from the screen and lit up this massive theatre - I swear like Owen Wilson in Midnight After Paris (SPOILER ALERT FOR THAT FILM) - I was back in a different time. The era of D.W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. They all felt like they were with me this morning, reminiscing about the old days. Highly anticipated by everyone here at the Crositte, Michael Hazanavicius' experimental and inventive and French financed The Artist delivered big style, a beautiful and painstakingly authentic but winning and humorous homage to the pre-talkies era of Hollywood. A movie I really didn't expect would be so self-aware, funny and charming. Clearly madly in love with movies now nearly a whole century old, Hazanavicius has made a tribute to the first golden age of Hollywood, a black-and-white (and proper monochrome it feels€ more Good Night and Good Luck than the washed out The Good German) SILENT comedy/drama that enraptured the Cannes crowd this morning. Of course it was playing to it's most favourable audience and for anyone who has ever watched a silent movie and even more so for those who consume them and are familiar with this period, this film will work for you - as it did for us - and it got the biggest and longest clap of the festival so far (at least two applaudments were made at moments of invention during the actual film). However as good as The Artist is, and I can't imagine I will see a silent B & W movie done this well for years to come, it's future path to mass distribution still looks rocky. This is not an easy film for the Joe Popcorn's of this world who will need their colour, they will need their dialogue and recognisable movie stars, to digest. And how The Weinstein Company, who picked up the rights to the film almost immediately when they got to see just exactly what it was, will be able to market this thing with posters and especially trailers (I imagine they must do a narration trailer) is a ponderance but even if four people end up seeing the movie during a theatrical run, it's hard not to imagine this one in Oscar contention next year. This film is that special and alongside We Need To Talk About Kevin - I do think I've seen two Best Picture contenders already. Set in Hollywood and telling a tale that runs from 1927-1931, The Artist follows George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a huge silent movie star - think Douglas Fairbanks (though at the beginning he looks more like a trimmer/younger David Strathairn) - who is perturbed by the advancing technology of the 'talkies' - i.e. a motion-picture which uses real sound so the actors would be required to speak instead of doing what the film refers to as 'mugging' (chatting your mouth and talking jibberish for the movie dialogue text screens to do all the work). Of course this was a real problem for many a Hollywood silent film star of this era and the majority of the major names just didn't survive the transition when movies required them to talk. The first talkies are regularly cited as being The Jazz Singer (1927) which used synchronised dialogue speeches and Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) - the first movie that really seemed to understand how to employ sound into movies - so The Artist is playing around in exactly the right ball park. There were many people like Valentin in cinematic history and as absurd and comical as the movie sometimes plays, the melodrama and the serious tone in the latter parts of the movie all ring true. (there's a wonder 4 minute or so tension piece scored to Bernard Hermann's Vertigo score that is EXTRAORDINARY). Benefitting from the advent of sound is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejoa) who knows how to act with her voice and she clearly overshadows our lead during the transition. Supporting roles are filled by more familiar faces to the English-language critics - those of John Goodman (as a ruthless movie studio chief) and James Cromwell, playing it more vulnerable and subtle as usual as the chauffeur to the stars. In a brief role, Penelope Ann Miller is the unhappy wife. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7FPabJrhuw The Artist is just a pleasure to watch - from all the references to a long-gone era - to all it's clever inventiveness and use of humour. There's at least two huge laughs in the movie - one involving sound as Valentine has a nightmarish vision of what life with audio would be like - and another which I won't spoil. The movie of course instinctively knows how funny to play with it with the opening gag. The performances are all memorable, everyone knows exactly how to play this self-expressionstic mood - but the show stealer is definitely Dujardin - who carries the whole thing on his shoulders. I also admired that it looked like he had gained weight for the second act as his character plunges deeper and deeper into depression and he looks like he might have the will to end up as big as Orson Welles. I'll have to finish this up now (I feel like I have so much more to say and I've already hit the 1117 word count mark) but I need to dash to catch a screening of the Princess Diana death conspiracy doc Unlawful Killing from Keith Allen that plays shortly. Hopefully I can get the time to file so more words on The Artist later, or if not we will definitely have something to talk about in the podcast later. Watch out for The Artist. It's gonna be tough to convince the masses to see it - but for anyone Obsessed With Film - it's a no brainer. Bring the festival experience home this year on Blu-ray Disc €“ keep up to date with all the latest Blu-ray news at the Blu-ray Disc Reporter.
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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.