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Speechless

How a black- and-white silent French film, set in Hollywood in 1927, became the talk of the town.

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Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo  

Here’s how The Artist, the new French black-and-white silent film that is charming its way onto many an Oscars short list, starts: with its hero, the happy-go-lucky movie star George Valentin, in a torture chamber, his ears being zapped by electrodes straight out of 1927’s Metropolis. Title card: “Speak!”

The fact that Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, resists speaking—the film is set during the dawn of the Depression, which coincided with the transition to talkies—is what drives the plot of this film. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, it’s a deliberately old-­fashioned melodramatic love story between the fallen silent idol Valentin and rising talkies star Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s gorgeous partner. (Says Hazanavicius: “We are French. We are not married. We just have kids.”) The Artist also features an adorable Jack Russell terrier, courtship by tap dancing, gleefully re-created Golden Age of Hollywood sets, and elaborate orchestration. There’s something both unnerving and surprisingly satisfying in watching a film without spoken dialogue. It’s the opposite of our surround-sound, 3-D, CGI blockbusters. For those of us who haven’t seen a silent since cinema-studies class as an undergraduate, the experience itself is pleasingly novel—or maddeningly hard to concentrate on, depending on how Zen you’re feeling. The silent movie, argues the director, is “a universal language. It’s a sensual experience, like music or paintings.”

The film has already seduced the cinephiles and, of course, the French. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, it made its world premiere to a ten-minute standing ovation. Dujardin won Best Actor, and the terrier, Uggy, won the Palm Dog for the best performance by a canine, against fierce competition from the scrappy mutt from Le Havre. Just before the festival, the Weinstein Company reportedly paid seven figures for the distribution rights.

It was the No. 1 movie in France when it opened last month; theater owners called the film’s producers to tell them that audiences were applauding during the credits. Festival plaudits on this side of the Atlantic followed, though Hazanavicius (pronounced Ha-za-na-VEE-shooz) admits to being befuddled at first by American reactions. “They laugh a lot and they are very happy and they show … they express their joy,” he says. “So at first I thought they were mocking the movie, and I said, ‘Oh, shit, they don’t like it. They think it’s stupid. Everything makes them laugh!’ And actually they really love the movie. Here, when people love something, they laugh a lot. And in France it’s very religious, the silence. They only laugh when it’s really supposed to be ­really funny.”

Nearly every one of the 27 industry pundits polled by the website Gold Derby prophesied that it’ll get nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The Weinsteins, deft Oscars-beguilers who have been here before—getting Best Picture nominations for foreign-language films like 1995’s Il Postino and 1998’s Life Is Beautiful when they ran Miramax—are releasing it November 25, high season for films that hope to be awards bait.

When the movie played at the New York Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t talk to me about any Oscars campaign (though, standing near him at a party, I overheard him assure Hazanavicius, Dujardin, and Bejo, “I told you I’d take you there, and I’m taking you there.”) Later I asked Weinstein if he was worried if American audiences were ready for it. “How am I going to market a black-and-white silent movie?” he replied, before stepping into an elevator. “I’m praying. I’m going to church and to synagogue. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going Buddhist. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going Islam. Saturdays and Sundays are very busy in the Weinstein household.”

During the NYFF, Dujardin, 39, found himself at the Tribeca Grand having to convey to me just how “very, very famous” he is back home. The major stumbling block to his international fame, nicely sidestepped by The Artist’s title cards, is what he calls “a rejection” of English, as well as all other tongues not his own. “I am so French. I’m sorry,” he said, charmingly accented. The morning of the NYFF was his third day of intensive study in preparation for the upcoming onslaught of press that would accompany the movie’s U.S. release and the Weinstein-propelled Best Actor push. “I have to. I have to,” he said of learning English. “Just for, uh, communicate, just for uh, because …je ne sais pas qu’est-ce que je veux dire”—in English: I don’t know. What am I trying to say? He thought hard and recovered. “Because it will be a victory for myself. A personal victory.”

There’s a funny echo of the film’s rise-of-the-talkie concerns: Now that the movie is coming out, Dujardin faces the same dilemma that so many silent actors did 80 years ago (not to mention the fictional Valentin): What happens when people hear him speak?


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