Bad parents, children at risk, bad children, women at risk, and whores: At the midpoint of the 64th Cannes Film Festival, grim material has far outweighed the genial. That’s one but certainly not the only reason why The Artist is such a delight — not only an audience favorite but also capable of beguiling critics who generally retain a pilgrim’s tolerance for the lugubrious. This charming and classy crowd-pleaser from inventive French filmmaker Michel Hazanvicius pleases the crowd honestly: A love letter to the golden age of black-and-white silent films in the Star Is Born relationship between a fading silent-movie matinée idol (debonaire Jean Dujardin) and a rising talkies ingenue (sunny Bérénice Bejo), the movie is itself a deftly conjured, jaunty black-and-white silent film with smartly embedded visual references to Hollywood classics. The movie is buoyed along by a swell modern musical score by Ludovic Bource, fashioned in scholarly but sprightly homage to the movie scores of the time. American actors including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, and Missi Pyle ought to provide enough comforting familiarity for a domestic audience to venture inside. (Plus, the intertitles are in English.) Besides, like all the best silent movies, The appeal of The Artist transcends words.
Among the Life Isn’t Beautiful selections, a soul-sinking category that includes We Need To Talk About Kevin, Restless, Polisse, Sleeping Beauty, and Michael, the clear standout is The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au velo), by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Integrity and honesty in the telling of documentary-like, child-focused stories are the brothers’ strengths: They won the Palme d’Or twice, for Rosetta (1999) and The Child (2005). Here, they apply that calm, strictly unsentimental attention to the story of an angry, spectacularly scrappy boy (non-pro discovery Thomas Doret — don’t rule him out for a prize) abandoned by his father in an orphanage, who finds a foster home with a hairdresser (The Hereafter‘s Cecile de France, in some of her best work). My own spectacularly unscientific sense of the colleagues around me puts this momentarily at the top of the critics’ list.
Regular readers of our Cannes reports know that I’m a big fan of Footnote, Joseph Cedar’s sharp, sophisticated story of Israeli rival father-and-son scholars. Well, I still am: It’s high up there on my own personal Cannes scorecard. For an instructive lesson in cultural differences, I like to read the French critics’ scorecard tallied daily in the trade magazine Le Film Français. This crowd says Feh! to Footnote. On the other hand, they’re high on Polisse, which every American critic knows is sub-Law & Order mixed with a soupçon of imitation Hill Street Blues.
What’s left to talk about but whores? In L’Apponide: Souvenirs de la maison close — or House of Tolerance in the English version — French director Bertrand Bonello prowls a turn-of-the-2oth-century Parisian bordello, run by a pleasant, maternal businesswoman (Noémie Lvovsky) and populated with young women as frank and sisterly as they are ripely beautiful and ready for business. Some of the men who visit are romantics; others are vicious. The girls know who’s who, share their secrets, fasten each other’s corsets, and smooth each other’s hair. There’s nothing romanticized or prurient about L’Apollonide, shot with a painterly eye in velvety textures and paced with an empathetic languor. The movie is both documentary and sensual. And after days and nights of movies about domestic misery, it’s a relief to spend a while in well-run whorehouse.