Pete Hammond

Harvey Weinstein’s little gamble may just pay off. After this morning’s very warmly received 8:30 AM press screening of The Artist, a black-and-white silent movie from French director Michel Hazanavicius, some in the media here were starting to predict Palme d’Or. I wouldn’t get into that game, but it is true this little gem that The Weinstein Company recently announced it will be distributing this fall in the U.S. (Warner Bros has it in France) is the fest’s big charmer so far, although the big prize here usually goes to films with more weight. It won very nice applause during and after its press unveiling from normally jaded journalists who haven’t been applauding much at all so far this fest and got an impressive  10-minute-ish standing ovation after Sunday night’s gala premiere. Standing ovations aren’t uncommon at Cannes’ black-tie galas. Just about every movie gets one. The real trick to seeing how loved your movie is comes to down to how many minutes they clap for you. The whole thing is a ritual. I remember one year, after the official screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, Weinstein clocked it at over 20 minutes and said it was a record.

The film went on to win the Palme d’Or. When I  coincidentally ran into the tuxedo-clad Harvey at the Majestic just after Artist finished, he was keeping it low key, especially when I asked how he thought the reaction was. He clearly wants people to discover this little film on their own. Others confirmed the enthusiastic response, though. Weinstein was also holding back (for him) during Oscar season on The King’s Speech campaign, too, and look where it got him. Whatever may happen to The Artist awards-wise here and elsewhere, it’s an artistic winner. This is the dream movie for people who love movies, an affectionate  look at a Hollywood long gone with wonderful lead performances from French stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Both co-starred in the director’s O.S.S. James Bond spoofs (Bejo is also his wife in real life). There’s a great American supporting cast including John Goodman and James Cromwell, but quite frankly the whole thing is stolen by Uggy, the dog who plays Jack, loyal companion and co-star to George Valentin, the silent movie icon whose star fades when talkies come in.  Someone should mount a campaign right now to get Uggy the Cannes Best Actor award. He’s a major star waiting to happen, but with a jury run by human actor Robert De Niro and including Jude Law and Uma Thurman, its unlikely they’ll give their top thesp prize to a pooch. I would.

The whole film was shot in Hollywood and on studio backlots and contains terrific cinematography, production design, costumes and a great symphonic score from Ludovic Bource. And lest you think The Artist is just a gimmick movie, it has potent things to say about leaving the past behind for the future. It is also about finding your own voice, much like The King’s Speech. In fact, Weinstein Co should just recycle that tag line. It works for this flick too. The company plans to release sometime in the fall, and though its unlikely younger audiences will be into it, positive word of mouth could change that. This is one of those completely original movies that could surprise the industry.

And what a welcome respite it was from some of the downer material that is on display daily at the Palais: child molesters, perverted old men, thugs, robbers, evil cult leaders, sadists, prostitutes, teenage killers, etc etc. I saw several other films today that made me want to jump off the Faye Dunaway billboard on top of the Palais including easily the worst I’ve seen so far, Code Blue, about a nurse who helps people to die but is involved in a kinky and ultimately violent voyueristic thing with her neighbor when she’s not putting needles into comatose seniors. I went because I sensed the movie could be the scandalous one that turns up at every Cannes. After all, there were warning signs all over the Theatre Croisette saying, “Some scenes may hurt the audience feelings.” Wow, I thought, this thing has to be really something salacious if they are warning people in advance at the nothing-is-forbidden Cannes Film Festival. Having seen it, I am not sure how it was supposed to hurt my feelings. The only thing in Cannes that hurts my feelings is when I get shut out of a movie and the security goon says “Complet.” I kinda wish I had gotten shut out of this one though.

On the other hand, a really good film out of Sundance playing in the Critics Week sidebar competition is Take Shelter from Film Nation, which Sony Classics will release Oct. 7. It stars Michael Shannon in a towering performance as a man haunted by terrifying dreams of a big storm. It co-stars Jessica Chastain, who is about to become Hollywood’s new “it” girl. She has made 11 movies, though few of them have hit the screen yet due to unfortunate delays and just bad luck. Suddenly, though, the stars have aligned and she is everywhere, especially in Cannes, where Take Shelter debuted today and her biggie, The Tree of Life, debuts Monday. In that she has equal above-the-title billing with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. Her other films awaiting release this year are Wilde Salome, opposite Al Pacino (it will play the Venice Film Festival); Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes; The Debt, which was delayed by a switch of distributors; and The Help. Another of her movies, Jolene, from director Dan Ireland, was in the Cannes Market three years ago and just got a nominal theatrical release this year hitting Blu-ray finally last week.

I caught up with her at the Take Shelter reception Sunday night at Carlton Beach. She had kind words for all her directors and told me the most important thing for her is to work with talents like Tree of Life’s Terrence Malick and Take Shelter’s Jeff Nichols, who only had the highest praise for his co-star, saying she went toe to toe with Michael Shannon (absolutely true). Chastain says she would work with him again and again; Malick, too. In fact, she did a two-day part in Malick’s next untitled film with Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. She says she just came down to the set to visit, and the part was quickly written for her. She’s convinced it won’t even be in the final cut and was horrified to see one publication actually list her as the film’s star. But that’s definitely the case with Tree of Life, and she can’t wait for people to see it. “I keep saying this is a movie that will change cinema as we know it, it’s groundbreaking, but even if people don’t agree I am so proud to be part of this,”  she said. When I suggested she’s about to become the talk of Cannes, she said, “If I am suddenly this ‘festival girl,’ it’s because of the directors I choose to work with. For me that is everything.” Chastain, Pitt and Malick all will hit the red-carpeted steps of the Palais on Monday night, and it is clearly the most anticipated film of this Cannes.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.