Silent film gets tongues wagging at Cannes

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A French director's clever silent movie about a fallen Hollywood silent-movie star came out of nowhere on Sunday to become a strong contender for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

"The Artist" by Michel Hazanavicius won strong applause -- and more than a few laughs -- from festival goers who'd been wondering if Cannes this year was ever going to be about more than dysfunctional families and sexual deviancy.

Shot in Hollywood in black and white, it stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a vain silent-movie hero in 1927 who becomes a zero two years later with the advent of the talkies.

Berenice Bejo is Peppy Miller, a talking-picture siren who fondly remembers how Valentin gave her a leg-up in show biz. Veteran funnyman John Goodman rounds out the cast as studio boss Al Zimmer.

Hollywood's heavy-hitting Weinstein brothers, riding high on the success of "The King's Speech," are planning to release "The Artist" later this year. Winning top honours at Cannes would give the film a huge publicity boost.

But for now, Hazanavicius -- best known for the "OSS" spy-movie parodies -- is more than happy with his adventure in a form of cinema that was long thought extinct.

"It's purely visual. It's pure cinema. I didn't know if I'd be able to do it," said the 44-year-old film-maker, who called in composer and longtime collaborator Ludovic Bource to score the rich orchestral soundtrack.

Like his cast, Hazanavicius watched a lot of silent films -- Charlie Chaplin's among them -- in order to grasp the secrets of telling a tale without spoken words.

He soon realised that ironic comedy wouldn't cut it. "A silent film imposes a certain experience on the viewer," he explained. "A melodrama or a love story fits best with the (silent) format."

Bejo, born in Argentina but raised in France, took inspiration from silent era heroines -- "without doing much, they managed to convey a lot of emotion" -- and F.W. Murnau's 1930 classic "City Girl".

Going into the project, she said, "I was petrified. I wondered if I could rise to the challenge... but strangely enough, not having to talk gave us tremendous freedom. We could overplay, for instance."

Dujardin agreed: "Sometimes there's too much talking in films. Silence is a wonderful exercise."

Not in Cannes on Sunday, but much talked about, was the terrier who plays Valentin's faithful four-legged companion. Named Uggy, he looked like a shoo-in for this year's Palm Dog prize for best canine acting.

Other films in competition seen so far in Cannes have been achingly heavy, such as British director Lynne Ramsey's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" and Australian film-maker Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty".

"The Artist" was a last-minute addition to the list of 20 films vying for the Palme d'Or, having initially been earmarked to be shown out of competition.

But Hazanavicius made no apologies for making a crowd-pleaser -- although it remains to be seen how a silent movie will go down in this era of 3-D blockbusters and multiplex theatres.

"It's designed to be a popular film," he said, "not something that would be state of the art or complicated, or something you'd have to read between the lines."

© 2011 AFP

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