Silence is golden

A black-and-white silent movie is an unlikely crowd-pleaser in Cannes

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béo in 'The Artist'

After watching too many films about sexual degradation, pedophilia, and parental abuse, it was a tonic to see The Artist this morning. I went into it with some trepidation. Making a black-and-white silent film in 2011 sounds impossibly precious, a whim of cinephilia that’s perverse in its own right. But despite its classic form, The Artist is not an art film, at least not in any restrictive sense. It’s a pure, undemanding delight, sure to entertain any audience that can be dragged into it. And it was met with the most generous applause of any movie screened here so far at the 8:30 a.m. press screenings (which are attended by several thousand journalists).

It’s a French movie, but you’d never guess. This is something I haven’t seen in 17 years of attending the Cannes Film Festival: a French film without subtitles. There are titles, but just the kind of sparse dialogue cards typical of the genre. The whole silent, black-and-white,  square-aspect-ratio thing, by the way, isn’t a gratuitous conceit. It sets up and frames a playful narrative set in late 1920s Hollywood, during the transition from silent films to talkies.

By turns farcial and tender, The Artist is a romantic comedy about star-crossed lovers, they kind who spend most of the movie sadly separated. They are George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a vain silent film star whose career is doomed with the advent of talkies; and Bérénice Béo, an exuberant extra who flirts her way into a small role in one of his films. She goes to become a big star just as he sinks into oblivion. Inevitably, this faux silent picture is flecked with homages to the era. On some level it’s a gender-flipped Sunset Boulevard, with James Cromwell cast as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur. But  the irony is beautifully restrained, and it’s a revelation to see how rich, emotional, and downright riveting a movie without dialogue can be. It’s strange that such an antique form can feel so fresh. This is a movie that you can imagine Woody Allen wishing he he made. Oh yes, there’s also a wildly talented dog in the cast. I’m not a big fan of dogs in movies, but this pooch is something else.

That was the highpoint of a day in which I consumed four movies. The other three were all dramas about abused and messed-up women. Don’t have time to go into details. It’s after midnight and I’ve got to be back at the Palais bright and early to fight the mob that will show up for Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, the most hotly anticipated title in Cannes.

But briefly, in those three films I saw more naked bodies than you can shake a stick at. Almost all female, except for the sick sadist who violated the sick heroine of Code Blue—a weird mix of palliative care and art porn—in a scene of unsimulated masturbation that could not have been less of a turn on. The other two films were: House of Tolerance, a painterly slice of life from the prostitutes’ POV in in a French Belle Epoque brothel—whose employees include The Woman Who Laughs because a permanent smile has been knifed into her face by a  client—and Martha Marcy May Marlene (cool title), a dark drama featuring Elizabeth Olsen in a star-making performance as a fugitive from a dangerous cult who seeks refuge with her sister.

OK. Enough. . . That Tree of Life better live up to its title.

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