Hollywood 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent movie superstar. The advent
of the talkies will sound the death knell for his career and see him
fall into oblivion. For young extra, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), it seems the sky's the
limit – major movie stardom awaits.

5
A superior homage to silent cinema.

CANNES: Wow your friends on Movie Trivia Night with this: Which Cannes Competition entry was shot at 22 frames per second (instead of the customary 24fps)?

The Artist.

A jaunty valentine of a movie that champions the building blocks of cinematic story-telling (light! shadow! interesting faces! emotion! thoughtful camera placement!), The Artist – a silent film in black and white blanketed with a terrific musical score and boasting only traditional title cards in lieu of audible dialogue – is touching and entertaining in equal measure.

It's an entirely French movie masquerading as a Hollywood picture and succeeding on every level. Delighting in authentic California settings (the protagonist awakens from a coma in silent star Mary Pickford's actual bed at her Pickfair estate), The Artist takes audiences through the emotions all but the most cerebral film-goers have always sought out. Unless you think Dougals Fairbanks went about things all wrong, you're almost certain to enjoy this unusual film.

Versatile Jean Dujardin won the Festival's Best Actor award, a choice to which only a curmudgeon would object. Jardin, seen in just the last few months in Nicole Garcia's serious drama A View of Love (Un balcon sur la mer) and Bertrand Blier's sardonic romp The Clink of Ice, nails dapper insouciance as George Valentin, a reigning box office star of mid-1920s Hollywood. He's handsome and athletic, gifted for inducing both chuckles and the swashing of buckles. The film starts in 1927 with the splashy premiere of his latest adventure picture.

The crowd – men in tuxes, women in gowns and pearls – loves it, laughing and gasping and crying in unison at the clearly depicted emotions on the giant screen. A pit orchestra plays along with the action. But we don't hear any synchronised sound because this movie about the transition from silent films to Talkies is – except for the instrumental musical score – 'silent’ too.

As flashbulbs pop outside the theatre, a plucky extra (Berenice Bejo) drops her clutch-shaped handbag and, in reaching to retrieve it, ends up beside the mugging matinee idol. She's got flapperish good looks and plays the moment for all it's worth. The result? A headline asking 'Who’s That Girl’ on the front page of Variety and first mention of the film itself buried on page five – much to the displeasure of the studio honcho played by John Goodman.

George is married, but some unmistakable spark passed between him and the anonymous young woman, who turns out to be one Peppy Miller.

Shown a sample of the new technique for creating talking pictures, George finds the primitive use of sound downright laughable. Told it's "the future" he sticks to his artistic guns and, when the studio for which he's made a fortune goes all-Talkies, George invests his own money in a silent adventure picture, due to open on Oct 25, 1929.

Meanwhile, young Peppy – who is only too willing to talk on film and to reporters – has been working her way up in the profession and her latest feature is also due out on that date. Students of history will notice that Wall Street's worst day ever is just around the corner.

George falls on reduced circumstances, with only his ridiculously clever dog to look out for him. Or does George have a secret benefactor?

At Cannes, director Michel Hazanavicius, who gave Dujardin a chance to shine in the two splendidly funny 0SS 117 spy spoofs, shared a story "about a director who wanted to make a film about a silent era actor whose career is ruined by the coming of sound. The producer says, 'That's a good premise, but the 1920s are expensive to re-create. Could it take place in the 1960s?'"

Sure, if you turn it into a man whose career is ruined by the coming of bellbottoms.

The Artist never devolves into parody or pastiche – it's a genuine silent film that proudly revives the 1:33 ratio, the almost-square dimensions that inspired TV sets before they became today's flat-screen stretched-out rectangles.

The story of a once-successful man falling on hard times is pertinent because the brutal switch from silents to sound echoes the upheaval in media today. The transition from celluloid film on heavy reels to encoded digital projection is fraught with obstacles. Skilled projectionists and lab technicians are being put out to pasture. Film schools and theatres are discarding their 'old’ equipment. What if the March of Progress turns out to be a mistake? What if there's some ineffable magic in sprocketed film running through a projector that we can't put our finger on but will miss when it's gone for good?

The 64th Cannes Film Festival began with the freshly restored colour version of Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon. And, 109 years after audiences world over first enjoyed its inventiveness, the 15-minute-long tale is still wildly entertaining. All colour prints were believed lost until a badly deteriorated colour print was donated to a Spanish archive. French wiz Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films spearheaded the effort to rescue each individual frame onto a hard drive in 1999. Only a decade later did the technology come along to use that precious data to reconstruct the film in its most complete and most glorious version known to anyone now living.

A jarringly modern yet appropriately playful musical score composed by the group Air differentiates this version to excellent effect.

There were some outstanding Talkies at Cannes in 2011, but for eye-popping glee in the service of easy-to-grasp narratives, two silent films were almost impossible to beat.

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Details

PG
1 hour 40 min
In Cinemas 02 February 2012,
Thu, 06/28/2012 - 11

Genres