After the success of "The Artist" at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was an audience favorite and earned lead actor Jean Dujardin a Best Actor prize, talk started up about whether this French silent period film about a has-been silent star (Dujardin) being brushed aside by the world of sound motion pictures could actually have a shot at a Best Picture nomination. Well, now I've seen it here in Toronto and, putting aside questions of artistic quality for a moment, I think there's a possibility it could get in, but it might need some help along the way.
The film was directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who previously made "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and its sequel, "OSS 117 - Lost in Rio." Both starred Dujardin as a hapless, cocky, bigoted spy who thinks he's a ladykiller and a top-notch agent. These amiable spoofs of 1960s-style Bond pictures were light, silly and disposable, although they left a fond aftertaste. "The Artist" is sort of Hazanavicius and Dujardin's spoof of old-school Hollywood silent films, although it's clearly a loving send-up.
It's extremely risky trying to predict how Academy voters will respond to a movie, but "The Artist" does have some factors that should help its Oscar chances. Amidst another year of serious fare, "The Artist" is one of the few comedies in the bunch. ("Midnight in Paris" being another strong contender.) Plus, it's an homage to Hollywood's golden yesteryear, which could appeal to voters in a nostalgic, self-congratulatory mood. And while it has nothing to do with the film's merits, "The Artist" does have the backing of the Weinstein Company, who did a bang-up job with the film's trailer, which sells the movie's affectionate, romantic mood perfectly.
But then we comes to the downsides. Although the trailer is great, in some ways it encapsulates all the film's charm in just a few minutes. "The Artist" is a beautifully shot black-and-white film that conjures up the spirit and atmosphere of old silents, but it's also a bit repetitive, too. The question will be whether voters find the movie's gimmick more than just a gimmick. Hazanavicius does a decent job riffing and expanding on his one joke, but in the end, it is just the one joke.
Also, a lack of star power may be a major obstacle. Dujardin and his co-star Bérénice Bejo (playing the rising talkies star he falls for) are both quite fun, but it may be a stretch to get voters to back a movie featuring people they don't know directed by a person they don't know. (John Goodman and James Cromwell have supporting roles, which might help some.) The Weinsteins will probably need to court Oscar voters directly through the movie's hook and its crowd-pleasing qualities. Is it crowd-pleasing enough? I didn't walk out of the theater floating on air, but I can see how it can tickle an audience. And if there's a company that can sell a feel-good film, it's the Weinsteins.
Ultimately, though, this is a movie whose fate is too cloudy yet to determine. "The Artist" opens around Thanksgiving, and by then we'll have a better idea of what other contenders' chances look like. The unpredictability of this year's Best Picture race, which will allow for between five and 10 nominees, definitely opens the door for a slight, charming foreign film. (Although, it's worth pointing out that its "dialogue" is in English, which could also be a boost for its prospects.) Looking at my Oscar prognosticating colleagues -- who are making their best guesses like I am right now -- most of them seem to have "The Artist" locked in to the race. I'm a little more measured, but that could be because I wasn't as wholly charmed by it as I know others are. If the movie opens in late November and does great business, I think its chances are quite good. If not, well, then things look a little more dicey. "The Artist" is a small charmer; now we have to wait to see if its charm outweighs its smallness to Oscar voters.