Cannes 2011: Can ‘The Artist’ cross over from art-house novelty to mainstream hit?


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The applause was still raining down at the Palais on Sunday evening, nearly 15 minutes after it started, for ‘The Artist,’ a black & white silent film about a fictional star of black & white silent film. The irony wrote itself: A silent movie was getting some of the loudest applause of the festival.

Michel Hazanavicius’ tale examines a successful performer circa the late 1920s (the A-list French actor Jean Dujardin) whose career goes into decline when the talkies come on and his nonverbal skills become expendable. At the same time, an ingénue he has helped mentor (Bérénice Bejo) begins, with her bubbly voice and personality, to become an A-lister. (More from my colleague Kenneth Turan on how Hazanavicius made the movie in the coming days.)


It’s easy to see why the audience here adored it -- there are the kinds of echoes of the original ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and a host of other golden-era Hollywood movies that will delight fans of classic films. And there’s a formal ambition that the Cannes crowd almost always loves. If ever there was a movie tailor-made for the upscale Croisette audience, this is it. After Sunday night, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the movie compete seriously for the Palme d’Or.

But once it gets out of the festival bubble, a question looms: Can ‘The Artist’ play to more than the TCM set?

Other films that employ some kind of formal novelty don’t suggest a major windfall.

Examples of those include ‘Black Dynamite’ (a 1970s-style blaxploitation movie made in 2008), the throwback movies of Guy Maddin and the marathon-sized epics ‘Carlos’ and ‘Che,’ which in their own way garnered attention for more than just their content. None of them reached more than a very specialized audience.

‘The Artist’ has some advantages over those movies. It’s not nearly as somber or serious as most of them, and in fact balances lightness and melancholy in a way that, as film fans often complain, contemporary Hollywood movies rarely do anymore. It also stars Hollywood names of some note -- including John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller (though they’re mainly supporting players). And the film does have a contemporary resonance; it’s about the fickle nature of celebrity and the addition of new technologies to movies, the latter in a way that will call to mind the encroachment of and debate over 3-D.

Maybe most important, ‘The Artist’ has Harvey Weinstein, an old hand of turning obscurities into conversation pieces.

At a party after the screening, the movie’s cinematographer noted to 24 Frames that the film has a commercial challenge, pointing out that even in France, where its star is well known, it could face issues because people want to see him talk and joke, not necessarily act silently.


‘The Artist’ will hit theaters later this year. Its certain to get reviewer and media attention for the sheer novelty of the enterprise. How much noise it will make with audiences remains a question.


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-- Steven Zeitchik