Delight is not a word frequently associated with the films at Cannes. Seriousness, slowness, strangeness: the movies on the Grand Palais screen are often dour and demanding. This year the world’s most acclaimed directors have given us glimpses of their apocalyptic or misanthropic visions. Terrence Malick produced the beginning of the cosmos, and Lars von Trier imagined the end of the world. We have seen stories about boys in trouble, young women in bordellos, brutal cops, pedophiles, angry gangsters and suicidal samurai.
So on the day before Jury President Robert De Niro announces the winner of Cannes’ top-prize Palme d’Or, attention must be paid to a film that is as sunny and life-affirming as the Riviera resort that hosts the Festival. It is the one “feel-good,” and very good, movie in competition: Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.
With supreme confidence and an informed, infectious fondness for his subject, Hazanvicius has paid tribute to Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the silent films gave way to talking pictures, by embracing contradictions and then beautifully resolving them. The writer-director is French, as are his stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, but they made the movie in Los Angeles, and all the dialogue is in English — dialogue that, until the last scene, is never heard but rather mouthed or shown in intertitles. The result is a “silent” film (with Ludovic Bourse’s virtually nonstop symphonic score) and in “black-and-white” (shot in color and then monochromed in the lab). So: a black-and-white silent movie: do you want to see that?
If you don’t, you will be missing the fizziest, most endearing film in ages. The Artist, which The Weinstein Company will open in the U.S. later this year, is not just for geriatric cinephiles but for anyone of any age who wonders what happened to the cinema’s old gift for creating pure joy.
George Valentin (Dujardin) is a full-service silent-screen star: action hero and glamour boy, every man’s ideal and every lady’s crush. The blithe spirit of romantic heroism, he bounds through his adventure scenarios flashing the grandly confident grin of the great ’20s swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks — and of Gene Kelly, who borrowed much of the Fairbanks elan for his character in Singin’ in the Rain, that other superb homage to Hollywood in the handover from silents to talkies. In the first scene from one of his films, as George is being tortured in a villain’s dungeon, he shouts (in intertitles), “I won’t talk. I won’t say a word.” Why should he talk? In just two decades, silent films have blossomed from an arcade novelty to a huge, worldwide business and the supreme new art of the 20th century. George is one of its most popular icon —the pride and piggy bank of Al Zimmer (John Goodman), the boss of Kinograph Studios.
Peppy Miller (Bejo) is a young flapper with dreams of stardom. Breaking the line at the premiere of George’s film, she accidentally bumps into him — the movies’ jazzier future, colliding with its radiant present, soon to be its past. He smiles, she twitters, and the next day the newspapers are headlining, “Who’s That Girl?” Soon enough Peppy will be the It Girl of movies, a grinning mix of silent comediennes Marion Davies and Clara Bow, with a premonition of Ginger Rogers. She has just that youthful verve that the movies will need when they start talking, and sassy-mouthed comedies replace some of the sentimental melodramas of the silent era.
For now, though, she is happy to secure a job as an extra in George’s next picture. He sees her dancing legs, behind a half-raised curtain, and imitates her steps. In a scene set in a dance hall, George blows five takes just so he can keep returning to Peppy as his partner. She sneaks into his dressing room and, in a lovely moment borrowed from Janet Gaynor’s silent romantic classic 7th Heaven, she slips her arm into one of his jackets and pretends he is caressing her. When George walks in, he tells her that every star needs a trademark and dabs a beauty spot on her face. It will become her visual symbol as she rises to fame, even as George’s dazzling smile freezes when his stardom dims to darkness.
Hazanavicius follows the two through the first years of talkies, as their careers travel in different directions — illustrated by a scene on a stairway, Peppy heading up, George down, and he wishes her well without anyone (except the audience) seeing that his heart is breaking. While Peppy becomes Hollywood chattering sweetheart in movies like Beauty Spot, and George defies destiny by sinking all his money into Tears of Love, a doomed project he has written, directed and produced. His wife (Penelope Ann Miller) walks out on him, ending her Dear George note with the P.S.: “You should see Beauty Spot. It’s incredible!”
By 1931 he is living in a cheap apartment with only two friends — his loyal butler/chauffeur (the very sensitive James Cromwell) and his pet Jack Russell terrier (the equally appealing Uggy) — and is forced to sell all his prized possessions. “Congratulations,” the auctioneer tells him, “it’s all sold! You’ve got nothing left!” He needs a break, a U-turn in his fortunes, a movie miracle. Now who could provide that?
Hearing the raves of all manner of critics who saw the film when it first played here on Sunday, those of us who caught up with it at a midweek screening were naturally skeptical. It can’t be that good. Yet it was and is. Hazanavicius, best known for the OSS 117 spy spoofs starring Dujardin and Bejo, began his filmmaking career by co-directing a pastiche film, La classe américaine, which told a story using only clips from 30 years of Warner Bros. talkies. But the challenge he set himself here is even more audacious. Boasting a wit in story construction worthy of Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, the movie sets itself impossible goals and keeps meeting and exceeding them.
No two stars could be more charming; and Dujardin expresses with astounding subtlety the emotional arc of a man sliding from the world’s rapturous acceptance to ignominy and anonymity. Bejo embodies the vitality of both her character’s nickname and the more modern sass of the early-1930s pre-Code movies. The pearly cinematography (darkening as George’s life starts to go black) and careful production and costume design put spectators instantly and deeply into this historical fantasy world. Beyond the craft credits, and the craftiness of the screenplay, The Artist sparks a warmth between itself and the viewer. It is a tonic for depressed movie lovers.
No one yet knows what films will be honored at tomorrow night’s closing ceremony. But the Jury could give Cannes a big surprise and a bigger lift by handing its most prestigious award to the Festival’s most buoyant movie. And why not? The Artist is Palme ad’Orable.