Cannes Reviews: ‘The Artist’ Brings Happiness, ‘Michael’ Brings Dread

Two powerful films are a study in contrasts: “The Artist” is a joyful silent comedy, “Michael” the disturbing portrait of a child molester

Today's roundup of Cannes reviews includes two competition films: a joyful silent comedy recently acquired by the Weinstein Company, and a disturbing portrait of a child molester.

The Artist"The Artist"

There really aren’t adequate words to describe the way one feels after watching Michel Hazanavicius’ "The Artist." Appropriately enough, words fail. When "The King’s Speech" ad campaign led with “some movies you feel,” I wanted to cringe. But here I am faced with a film that really does deserve the slogan, because you DO feel it. You feel it from the top of your head all the way down to the toes of your feet: pure joy, pure happiness.  

We were all wondering what to expect when we heard about this last-minute entry into the festival – a silent film, and in black-and-white. Most of us were thinking it would be more of the grim stuff Cannes has been digging up so far: abuse, alienation, torture, child molestation. Not knowing anything about the director or the actor, I went in with a blank slate. 

And a blank slate is exactly how you should also see "The Artist." I advise, therefore, not reading any reviews at all. But if you’re curious about it, I'll try my best not to spoil the good parts.  

"The Artist" is really a film about a filmmaker who wanted to try making a silent film. He didn’t just lazily attempt this, however. He thought it through very carefully, deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. Every tiny gesture and raise of the eyebrows matters, and all involved must be on the same page to get across the meaning of each scene. 

You could tell just how connected the Cannes audience was because the most subtle humor got big laughs. Who knew that a tiny gesture by a dog could bring down the house?

Without dialogue, you have to watch and study the faces. These actors don’t overdo it the way silent movie actors did, which today feels alienating, given our intimate relationship with actors on the big screen.   Here we’re given just enough, with the right expressions and actors who are also dancers and therefore used to conveying intention and emotion through movement. The director and the performers are in complete control from beginning to end.

The artist, played by Jean Dujardin, who is a leading contender for Best Actor in Cannes, cute-meets an up-and-coming starlet (Berenice Bejo). Sparks fly, but he’s married. The couple are forced to go their separate ways. Her career begins to take off while his starts to decline.     

Dujardin has the same casual charm and graceful masculinity as Gene Kelly and the film, in its way, seems to nod to "Singing in the Rain," what with the blonde star (Missy Pyle) and the sweet ingenue. "The Artist" is also about that transition from silent films to talkies, but it is much more about the evolution of film. Why did we need to go from silents to talkies? Do we still need talkies? Or can a story be told as effectively without any dialogue at all? It isn’t that Hazanavicius wants to tell a story without dialogue – it’s that he wants to make a silent movie, complete with heavy-handed score, facially adept actors, and universally appealing story.

It is shocking how riveting the thing is. If the Weinsteins can pull off a Best Picture nomination, I will never stop bowing down. There is no doubt in my mind that it will end up being one of the year’s best films.

Of all of the movies screened so far, this is the one I will take home with me and carry around with me for a good, long while, and never want to let go. As the credits rolled for "The Artist," I knew I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want the lights to come up, and I certainly didn’t want to face the world outside. I had no idea it still existed: The magic of the movies.

Michael"Michael"

Markus Schleinzer’s deeply disturbing portrait of a child molester is one of several films at Cannes this year that depict children being treated cruelly. Critics of the film will say it's never really explains why its title character decides to capture a young boy and build a cellar where he'll live, providing the child with nothing but the bare necessities to survive while regularly molesting him. But there's no single turning point when the film needs to shift our sympathies against Michael. He's the protagonist we've got, for better or worse (or, rather, for worse or worst). We’re to put Hitchcock’s theory to the test: to choose for ourselves whether or not we're able to identify with the villain as the film goes along. Hopefully, most of us won't. 

Here in America, our nightly cop dramas cannot tear themselves away from grim tales of child sexual torture. It seems as if our greatest fear has become our latest obsession as well. Do we simply like to sit and bear witness when the cops bring these creeps down? Or is there something more lurid lurking as we watch? 

"Michael" is the kind of film that you will not be able to shake for a good, long while.  It authentically portrays the kind of mind that's capable of conceiving and carrying out schemes like this. Michael's methodical attention to detail keeps his plans so coldly efficient, his life so fastidiously ordered, that there's never a chance that something will go awry to cause his house of cards to come tumbling down. No friends or neighbors know there is a boy living in his basement. No one would ever suspect such a thing. We all like to think we’d be able to recognize a child predator like this man. But could we? Schleinzer’s film suggests that when a facade is this carefully constructed we might never see what's behind it. Men like Michael could drift in and out of our work, schools, parks, movie theaters and we'd never even know they’re there.

"Michael" isn’t a great movie because it’s concrete veracity feels accurate. Pick any Oprah show on the topic, and you’ll find plenty of hardcore accuracy. What elevates the film to near greatness is Schleinzer’s lean, austere storytelling. He doesn't reveal everything in the dimness – he merely suggests the edges and lets us fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. Even the film’s ending leaves us conundrums to ponder. Some of us will feel it reaches a satisfying conclusion, others will see a more tragic and unsettling outcome. 

Michael is played with unnerving rigidity by Michael Fuith, who manages to remain repulsive throughout; we never feel any pity whatsoever. He does seem to have a single moment of remorse, when his victim draws a stark picture of himself with his kidnapper, and the gesture brings Michael to tears. But is he crying for his victim, or is he only crying for himself? Refusing once again to spell out easy answers, Schleinzer leaves this question for us to sort through too. 

While the film is nearly flawless in terms of making deft editorial and directorial choices to cut to the bare bone at all costs, there's only one real problem with "Michael." No matter how great a film it may be, in the end the filmmakers are asking us to spend two hours watching a child molester. As commonplace as such invitations have become, for many of us that's asking too much.

More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage, including longer versions of these reviews, can be found at Awards Daily.