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CANNES, France (Reuters) - There was loud applause in Cannes on Sunday for "The Artist," a black-and-white, silent movie that recreated the magic of the "pre-talkie" era and brought relief from a relentlessly dark competition lineup.
Directed by France's Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a romance set in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 1930s as cinema was undergoing a seismic shift from silent to sound.
Central hero George Valentin, a mustachioed, larger-than-life screen idol with a passing resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, refuses to believe that sound is the future, and after the economic crash of 1929 falls on hard times.
Up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller meets him and falls in love, but as he fades from the limelight she becomes a superstar and their paths diverge.
Tension and emotion come through the old-fashioned crafts of larger-than-life acting and a full orchestral score, and Hazanavicius revels in playing with the absence of sound.
He employs title cards and introduces sound only once in the main body of the movie when Valentin has a nightmare. In the buildup to the denouement, an intertitle appears with the word "BANG!," at which point the audience gasped in surprise.
"I wanted to tell the tale in this way that is purely visual, it's pure cinema," said Hazanavicius, best known in France for his commercially successful spy spoof movies.
"And indeed it was the substance of some of the greatest directors in cinema."
French actor Jean Dujardin, who has appeared in the director's spy parodies, plays Valentin, and Argentinian-born Berenice Bejo portrays Miller. Both studied the stars of the silent and early sound era for inspiration.
"I realized that one didn't need to have a script, one could convey so much through one's bodies, one's gestures," said Dujardin, who executes the role with the melodramatic flourishes and grand gestures of the early film greats.
They share the screen with U.S. actors John Goodman, as the ruthless studio boss, and James Cromwell, who takes the role of Valentin's faithful butler Clifton.
Some of the biggest laughs went to a Jack Russell terrier, the early frontrunner for the annual, unofficial Palme Dog award set up to parody the coveted Palme d'Or prize for best picture.
Hazanavicius said he deliberately avoided making a spoof of the silent era, but created instead a melodrama which could draw in the audience.
He also resorted to what he called "petty theft" by borrowing scenes and ideas from black-and-white films including those of the late "Metropolis" creator Fritz Lang.
"And what's Fritz Lang going to say about it anyway?" said Hazanavicius. "Yes, there are a whole series of little things. This is part and parcel of my whole project. This is what the cinema does constantly, to borrow."
The return to 1920s cinema was in sharp contrast to the high-tech 3D blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" which screened at the Cannes film festival on Saturday.
Eight of the 20 films in competition in Cannes have screened to the press, and The Artist is among the most popular so far among critics who have been underwhelmed by the overall quality.
Pre-festival favorites Terrence Malick, Lars Von Trier and Pedro Almodovar are all yet to come.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White