'The Artist'

Courtesy of Cannes International Film Festival

This silent movie is a French take on Hollywood's pre-talkie days.

It's a good bet most contemporary directors would have a hard time pulling off a silent movie, so it's all the more impressive what Michel Hazanavicius has wrought with The Artist, a black-and-white silent in the old-fashioned 1.33 aspect ratio that takes place in Hollywood when silents were overtaken by talkies. A playful, lightly melancholy tale with A Star Is Born echoes about a young actress whose career takes off in sound pictures just as that of a veteran male star declines, this unusual L.A.-made French production is, by definition, a specialty item. It's perfect for festivals and buff enclaves worldwide but a tough proposition commercially outside France, where the director and stars are household names by virtue of the OSS capers.

A mustachioed, preening Jean Dujardin engagingly incarnates George Valentin, a vain star in the Douglas Fairbanks mode who specializes in swashbuckling romantic adventures. Peppy Miller (the winning Berenice Bejo) is the pretty girl he meets at a lavish premiere filmed in downtown L.A.'s Orpheum, and John Goodman is the cigar-chomping Kinograph Studios boss Al Zimmer.

Although everything in both the films-within-a-film and the "real" movie looks a bit too crisp and clean, lacking the soft-focus close-ups so prevalent at the time, Hazanavicius and his key collaborators -- cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, American production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges -- succeed in the important matter of approximating the spirit and flavor of late silent pictures, notably their energy, brio and emotional appeal.

Similarly, Ludovic Bource's continuous score might be more elaborate and ambitious than the orchestral music that normally accompanied major silent features in big-city engagements, but its vigor and imagination provide Artist with a crucial boost that amplifies its numerous mood swings.

Filmed on studio stages as well as on old Hollywood streets, Artist evinces unlimited love for the look and ethos of the 1920s as well for the style of the movies. The filmmakers clearly did their homework and took great pleasure in doing so, an enjoyment that is passed along in ample doses to any viewer game for their nifty little conceit. 

Venue Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius
Producer Thomas Langmann
No rating, 100 minutes