There really aren‚Äôt adequate words to describe the way one feels after watching Michel Hazanavicius‚Äô The Artist. Appropriately enough, words fail. When The King‚Äôs Speech‚Äôs ad campaign led with ‚Äúsome movies you feel‚Äù I wanted to cringe. But here I am faced with a film that really does deserve the slogan because you DO feel it. You feel it from the top of your head all the way down to the toes of your feet: pure joy, pure happiness.
We were all wondering what to expect when we heard about this last-minute entry into the festival – a silent film and in black and white. Most of us were thinking it would be more of the grim stuff Cannes has been digging up so far – abuse, alienation, torture, child molestation. Not knowing anything about the director or the actor, I went in with a blank slate.
And a blank slate is exactly how you, dear reader, should also see The Artist. I advise, therefore, not reading any reviews at all. But if you‚Äôre curious about it, you can certainly read beyond this point. I will try my best not to spoil the good parts.
The Artist is really a film about a filmmaker who wanted to try making a silent film. He didn‚Äôt just lazily attempt this, however. He thought it through very carefully – deciding what to leave in, what to leave out: every tiny gesture and raise of the eyebrows matters. All involved must be on the same page to get across the meaning of each scene. It is a lot like silent theater, pantomime or dance. If you‚Äôve ever done any of those things on stage you know that you must convey meaning without relying on dialogue. It‚Äôs challenging, to be sure, but not impossible.
With these parameters, silent and in black and white, my first thought was, ‚Äúwhy reinvent the wheel?‚Äù I remained skeptical and one step removed for the first part of it. The girl‚Äôs all wrong, I thought. She isn‚Äôt acting the way a woman in the 1920s, in show business, would act. This isn‚Äôt anything I haven‚Äôt seen before. What‚Äôs the big deal?
The big deal is that The Artist completely silenced the critics screening here at Cannes who watched with rapt attention this kind of familiar story unfold. You could tell just how connected this audience was to it because the most subtle humor got big laughs. Who knew that a tiny gesture by a dog could bring down the house?
Without dialogue, in fact, you have to watch and study the faces. These actors don‚Äôt overdo it the way silent movie actors did, which today feels alienating, given our intimate relationship with actors on the big screen now. But here we‚Äôre given just enough, with the right expressions and actors who are also dancers and therefore used to conveying intention and emotion through movement, The director and the performers are in complete control from beginning to end.
The artist, played by Jean Dujardin, who is a lead contender for Best Actor here in Cannes, cute-meets an up and coming starlet (Berenice Bejo). Sparks fly but he‚Äôs married. They are forced to go their separate ways. Her career begins to take off while his starts to decline.
Dujardin has the same casual charm and graceful masculinity as Gene Kelly and the film, in its way, seems to nod to Singing in the Rain, what with the blonde star (Missy Pyle) and the sweet ingenue. It parts ways from Singing in the Rain, which is about actors who dub the voices of silent stars who can‚Äôt speak very well. The Artist is also about that transition, but it is much more about the evolution of film. Why did we need to go from silents to talkies? Do we still need talkies? Or can a story be told as effectively without any dialogue at all? It isn‚Äôt that Hazanavicius wants to tell a story without dialogue – it‚Äôs that he wants to make a silent movie, complete with its heavy-handed score, facially adept actors, and universally appealing story.
It is shocking how riveting the thing is, given its genre – no profanity, nudity or sex. Hardly any sound at all, except music. It‚Äôs practically unheard of for today‚Äôs audiences. And maybe that‚Äôs the point. Perhaps it‚Äôs the getting back to the roots of storytelling that makes this a worthwhile effort.
Will kids go and see it? Hard to say. The audience for this film will be cinephiles and people old enough to remember that there ever were silent films to begin with. The powerful acting of the dog alone should bring in the younger generation if they know what‚Äôs good for them. There is nothing quite as enjoyable as the performance of this dog. Animals are used in kids movies all the time, but rarely as a real character. Here the dog completely steals the show and hopefully the studio will mount a Best Supporting Actor campaign for him. In all seriousness, though, if the Weinsteins can pull of a Best Picture nomination for this I will never stop bowing down. There is no doubt in my mind that it will end up being one of the year‚Äôs best films. It already is.
Of all of the movies screened so far, this is the one I will take home with me and carry around with me for a good, long while, and never want to let go. My grandmother said that they turned to cinema during the depression because life outside was so grim the theater was the only relief. But as the credits rolled for The Artist I already knew I didn‚Äôt want it to end. I knew that I didn‚Äôt want the lights to come up and I certainly didn‚Äôt want to face the world outside. I had no idea it still existed: The magic of the movies.