The talk Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival was about the movie that doesn't talk: a silent film about a 1920s Hollywood star toppled by the age of talkies.
French director Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" employs lush music, well-chosen but restrained sound effects and no spoken words save in one brief scene.
The result is an old-timey comic melodrama about the pitfalls of artistic pride and the power of romantic redemption that earned sustained applause at its first press screening, a rarity for notoriously snooty Cannes critics.
A last-minute addition to the lineup of 20 films competing for the festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, "The Artist" is shot in black and white, conveys its limited dialogue through silent-movie title cards and is presented in the boxy format of early cinema instead of today's widescreen panoramas.
"We live in a time when people are crazy about 3-D films, people are crazy about technical innovation. Everything seems to be focused on images, and suddenly someone wanted to tell a very odd tale using this format that is a silent movie in black and white," "The Artist" producer Thomas Langmann said before the film's official Cannes premiere Sunday night.
"The Artist" spins the tale of the fictional George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who also starred in Hazanavicius' James Bond spoofs "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio") a silent-era superstar who has wealth, fame, fawning fans and an adorably clever dog who shares the screen with him.
George finds himself cast aside as talking pictures arrive and the 1929 market crash finishes him off financially. Meanwhile, rising star Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, who costarred in "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies"), who owes her career to a few small kindnesses from George, seeks to return the favor.
But George's pride is an obstacle that even Peppy's compassion may not overcome.
Like the films of Charles Chaplin, "The Artist" blends moments of hilarious comedy with deep pathos. Hazanavicius pored over classics from the silent age and decided that such a mix was vital to a story told virtually without words.
"I looked at them a lot to understand the rules of the game, and very quickly, I realized that comedy, and ironic comedy furthermore, would not hold water over an hour and a half," Hazanavicius said. "A silent film moreover imposes a certain way of experiencing the film on the spectator, so melodrama and a love story fit best with that format.
"Chaplin is above all a comic," he added, "but all his feature films are melodramas with some little snippets of humor."
"The Artist" also features John Goodman as George and Peppy's studio boss, James Cromwell as George's devoted chauffeur, Penelope Ann Miller as George's unhappy wife and Missi Pyle as a silent-screen starlet.
The actors bring a wonderful combination of modern intimacy and the larger-than-life hamminess of old Hollywood. Grand posturing blends with subtle gestures, shameless mugging melds with restrained glances.
Dujardin said watching silent films, "I realized that one didn't need to have a script. One could convey so much through one's body, in fact, and one's gestures."
Bejo studied actresses not only in silent film but also from the early years of talkies.
"I loved Joan Crawford when she was very young, because she was really relaxed physically, her way of dancing and moving and putting her hands on her hips and winking her eyes," Bejo said. "I watched Marlene Dietrich wink, I studied how she closed her eyes, how she entered a room. Her whole body came into a room in a special way."
One thing Hazanavicius avoided was another non-talkie of modern times, Mel Brooks' 1976 comedy "Silent Movie." Hazanavicius said he adores Brooks but that "Silent Movie" was a parody he did not want to view before shooting his own silent film.
The director admitted borrowing liberally from other films, though, weaving in visual and musical references from many classics, including Fritz Lang's late-1920s thriller "Spies."
"Sometimes these are a form of tribute, sometimes they are just sort of quotes. Sometimes I just sort of borrow or steal," Hazanavicius said. "I think if things are done tastefully, it's fine.
"I just love the images so much. And what's Fritz Lang going to say about it, anyway?"