He’s pretty irresistible. His linguistic struggles are accompanied with a wink, a smile, and an expertly cocked eyebrow. Tall, with the kind of Richard Burton barrel-chest-to-waist ratio they stopped making in the sixties, Dujardin is a matinee idol that you’ve likely only heard of if you’re French. He does not walk, he struts.
Dujardin worked in construction straight out of high school—his family is in that business—then did his ten months of mandatory military service. That was 1994, not wartime, so his experience, he says, was a lot of “Right, left. Right, left. Right, left. We had a lot of time for writing or c’est quoi?” “Free time,” offered the English coach accompanying him. Dujardin tried again, “I observed a lot of people: my sergeant, a blond surfer, a poet. Because in the service I see … I saw people that … que je ne reverrais plus jamais”—I would never see again. By the time he left the military at 24, he’d written a one-man sketch show about them. He walked into a bar and asked, “Can I do a show?” The owner said, “I’ve never done that.” Dujardin said, “Me neither.” And the owner said, “Okay.” That’s how he started in show business.
His big break was A Guy, A Girl (Un Gars, Une Fille), a hugely popular daily television series about a couple. There he met his wife, actress Alexandra Lamy, 40. “It’s my best friend, my wife—with boobs,” he said, adding that she is also “very famous.” Then Hazanaviciuscast him as the lead in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,a 2006 spoof of Bond movies. Hazanavicius, 44, a visual formalist enamored of genre and period nostalgia, had wanted to make the kind of movie where, said Dujardin through the coach, “if you turned off the sound, you could think it was a 1950s movie.” They followed that up with 2009’s OSS 117: Lost in Rio, which has an opening sequence in which Dujardin enchants an entire room of Asian women by winking, smiling, and dancing the twist. The films were such huge hits that Hazanavicius decided he could try a silent film next. Not that it was an easy sell.
The director told Dujardin, “If the movie is good, people will know you out of France.”
One of Hazanavicius’s talking points to get Dujardin to sign on to The Artist was that it could make him a global star. “I said to Jean, ‘If the movie is good, it is going to be for you. I mean, people will know you out of France,’ ” says Hazanavicius. “But I was looking for money, and so I have to convince people to join the movie, so I said a lot of things. You know, when you want to convince people, you say things and you don’t know if you are lying, or if you just hope that things are going to happen, or if you are right.”
Before writing the movie, Hazanavicius watched over 300 films, drawing influence mainly from minimalist late-silent classics like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise and City Girl and King Vidor’s The Crowd. Then Hazanavicius and his producing partner, Thomas Langmann, spent six months traveling around with “the object,” a bound copy of the script filled with beautiful shots of the twenties that they used to drum up funds. They also presented the object to Hazanavicius’s dream list of American character actors, including James Cromwell, who plays Valentin’s faithful manservant, Clifton, and John Goodman, who plays Zimmer, Valentin’s hard-nosed Kinograph Studios boss. Goodman took just four minutes to convince. “The story just was so simple and decent,” he says by phone from Los Angeles. “It’s like when I saw Rocky the first time; it’s a throwback to earlier-style movies. There’s just something so innocent about it, and it works. I didn’t know it was gonna work at the time, but it seemed like a good risk to take. I didn’t have to learn any lines.”
Much of the expense went into the period exactitude. They used the back lots at Paramount and Warner Bros. Kinograph Studios was in fact Red Studios, built in 1915. Peppy Miller’s house is in actuality the home of silent-film legend and United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford. Valentin is shot sleeping in Pickford’s original bed.
To play Valentin, Dujardin, too, studied up, watching every film starring Douglas Fairbanks, the romantic action hero whose Mark of Zorro is shown briefly in The Artist, with shots of Dujardin as Valentin as Zorro. He and Bejo, 35, took six months of tap-dancing lessons, learning several elaborate sequences. Neither of them had ever studied dance before.
To mimic the feeling of watching an old movie, Hazanavicius shot at 22 frames per second, which means that the actors seem to “move a little bit faster than in real life. We all know that people in the twenties were moving in the same rhythms that we are doing, but because of the cinema we think of them moving a little bit faster.”