Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, added to the Cannes competition at the last minute, is both a surefire crowdpleaser and a magnificent piece of film-making. Whatever else, this is also surely the most enjoyable contender for the Palme d'Or this year.
It's a silent movie set in the Hollywood of the late 1920s. The story of a Douglas Fairbanks-like movie star (Jean Dujardin) fallen on hard times, it evokes memories of everything from A Star Is Born to Citizen Kane, from Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby Stories to Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and even Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. French director Hazanavicius (best known for spy spoof OSS 117) isn't the first film-maker in recent years to make a silent movie but he is doing it on a far grander scale than any of his predecessors.
As the film begins, George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of his game. Fans swoon over his every public appearance. He is a dashing and charming figure with a sense of mischief. He is accompanied everywhere by his pet mutt (a Jack Russell which looks a very likely winner of the annual Palm Dog award for best canine performance in Cannes). By chance, he meets an up-and-coming starlet called Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).
The trajectory of the film is predictable enough. The talkies arrive. Valentin's career crashes, the ruthless studio boss (John Goodman) decides the public wants "fresh meat" and Peppy Miller becomes Hollywood's latest It Girl.
The Artist could easily have seemed very kitsch indeed. Thankfully, though, this is far more than just a knowing and ironic pastiche of old Hollywood silents. It is heartfelt too. Even the most ridiculous scenes – for instance, the dog's heroic rescue of a man caught in a fire – seem dramatic rather than absurd. Dujardin's performance is a revelation. He has the carefree quality and the athleticism of a Fairbanks in his pomp.
Early on, the lack of spoken dialogue is disconcerting. However, the pacing is so brisk that audiences will quickly forget they're watching a silent movie. Formally, the film is a tour de force.
Ludovic Bource's rousing music, the brio of the performances and Guillaume Schiffman's luminous black and white cinematography help draw spectators in. "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Gloria Swanson (playing an old silent era diva) famously proclaimed in Sunset Boulevard. Watching The Artist, we know exactly what she means.