Cannes has a bona fide crowd pleaser on its hands this morning as the silent film The Artist screened for the press to terrific response. Harvey Weinstein seemed particularly bullish about the film (which was a last-minute addition to this year’s competition) on Friday as he presented his upcoming slate to international buyers, and now I see why. Funny, sly, touching, nostalgic, and interestingly relevant, The Artist will be a unique presence in this year’s awards race to say the least. Written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (he of those OSS 117 James Bond parodies), the film—about a fading silent film star and his relationship with a new starlet on the rise—stars two actors largely unknown to U.S. audiences (French comedian Jean Dujardin and Argentine/French actress Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be married to Hazanavicius) but does feature appealing supporting performances from familiar faces John Goodman and James Cromwell. It’s shot entirely in black and white and, although it does feature a musical score throughout, it has virtually no organic sound (except for two scenes where that barrier is memorably broken).

The Weinstein Co. (which, of course, was behind this year’s Best Picture winner The King’s Speech) says it will release the film in late Fall 2011, and with the right campaign and critical response (check back here for my colleague Lisa Schwarzbaum’s thoughts on the film, which I’m dying to hear), it could be a strong contender. In a way, I think The Artist will play to the Academy like a foreign entry—and Weinstein was certainly able to use Il Postino and Life is Beautiful to their full awards potential when he was back at Miramax. That the film takes place just before and during the depression gives it an extra layer of contemporary meaning as well. Particularly if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association deems it a comedy, it could score multiple major-category nominations at the Golden Globes, in which case it would be off and running for the rest of the season. And I’d venture that Oscar voters of all ages will find the film as delightful as this morning’s audience did. If this is the kind of film for which the Academy’s expanded Best Picture category can now make room, then I’d be all for it.

Dave on Twitter: @davekarger