The Artist, to my mind, should have won the Palme D'Or, partly because it would have given the film a big push in all the places that are impervious to the charms of this French-made (but US-set) film's biggest champion, Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein introduced a small market screening I attended in Cannes and revealed that his brother was less than impressed when he reported back that he'd seen a great film that was in black and white and silent – and that he'd bought it (if I remember rightly, Bob made some suggestions about checking into a mental asylum). Once they saw it, though, everyone at the Weinstein Company fell in love with Michel Hazanavicius' enchanting film, and when the final credits rolled it was easy to see why. The Artist surely stands to be the left-field hit of the year, a film with so much personality and charm that 100 minutes – daunting on paper – simply fly by.
This is because Hazanavicius' film isn't simply a faithful homage. Though it does cleave to the conventions of 20s filmmaking, using title cards for dialogue, The Artist features a great orchestral score in place of the usual rinky-dink piano, and the image is pristine – there's no attempt to pass this off as the real thing in any way. It's rather like Hazanavicius' recent OSS movies, a brace of camp James Bond-esque parodies that took France by storm and even found a few admirers in the UK, in that it goes for character comedy rather than satirising genre cliches. And from the OSS movies comes its star: square-jawed leading man Jean Dujardin (pictured), who plays George Valentin, a colossus of the 20s cinema. Dujardin is simply hilarious in the opening scenes, striking ridiculous Rudolph Valentino poses and mugging furiously to the rapturous audiences who flock to his films.
The beginning of the smug but likeable Valentin's end comes by chance, when a fan falls into his arms during an audience mobbing. The press make the most of the photo op, with Variety running a cover story that screams, “WHO'S THAT GIRL?” And as a result, the girl, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), finds her career as an extra taking off, to the extent that when the talkies come in circa 1927, Peppy's singing voice makes her a superstar. George, meanwhile, is clinging to the silent era, funding his own bizarre epic that will take him to the poor house. And while Peppy's rise continues, George refuses to accept it with any good grace, becoming a lonely, poor, bitter, alcoholic and divorced recluse.
The parallels with A Star Is Born are quite evident, and the story does take some dark turns, but Hazanavicius keeps the tone light and his two stars are simply irresistible. Though it may sound a little arthouse, the presence of James Cromwell, John Goodman, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller should satisfy those in need of a bit of Hollywood shading, and in the end I think its defiant difference and modest but perfectly realised ambition will make it stand out in a time when the trend is towards getting bigger and bigger and more and more. It's strange but true: the old is the new new.
Coming soon: This Must Be The Place, Oslo August 31, Michael, The Murderer, Walk Away Renee, Le Havre, The Kid With A Bike...