Hazanavicius also had hoped to make a big deal of the crash of 1929, to “hold up a mirror to today.” But in the end he chose not to linger on it long. “It’s not easy to make a delightful movie,” he says.
So how’d he do with making a new old movie? The world’s premier silent-film historian, Kevin Brownlow, e-mailed that he was, yes, “delighted” by the attention it’s getting. Bruce Goldstein, who’s organizing a silent-film series at Film Forum this month, admired the effort toward verisimilitude. “There were some great moments. I think he was trying to capture that wonderful feeling you get by watching the best silents, and he succeeds, to a degree.” Still, “I thought the editing really wasn’t sharp,” says Goldstein. “The great silents are fast-paced.” He also noted that dog stars in those days were usually German shepherds. And he thought Dujardin was wonderful but a bit much. “The character is definitely based on Douglas Fairbanks, and Doug Fairbanks was happy-go-lucky, but it was overdone. You never saw the great stars smiling into the camera.”
“For you it’s a silent movie, but for me it’s a talking movie,” said Dujardin at the NYFF. “I’m not a red fish.” At this, he puckered his lips and made like a goldfish. Whatever talking happened during filming, though, wasn’t in a common language. “I speak no French; I flunked ninth-grade French,” Goodman says. He recalled a scene in which he had to fire Valentin. He spoke English and Dujardin French. “John Goodman, he improvises a lot, so he’d say, ‘Blah blah blah blah blah,’ and Jean was like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.’ ” says Hazanavicius. Goodman goes on: “I got more elaborate on every take. It didn’t matter what I was saying. I’d switch it around. Mr. Improv!” Says Bejo: “Jean didn’t understand a word.”
Out of character, Dujardin didn’t mingle much. “We hung out between takes, but there wasn’t a lot of conversation,” says Goodman. “I didn’t wanna step on my dick. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.” At the end of his fifteen-hour days, Dujardin would go back to Lamy at a house in the Hollywood Hills, away from the rest of the cast; Dujardin thought Hazanavicius put them there for a reason. “He felt like the character. Because no one knew him, he felt a little isolated,” Dujardin said via Bejo at the NYFF. “It was kind of a freedom. He just focused into his character, alone, like George Valentin. So in a way it was a good inspiration.” But also a little sad. In the movie, Valentin’s only other friend besides Peppy and Clifton is his dog. Dujardin couldn’t talk to that co-star, either: “I don’t speak well the dog. American dog.”
If all this works out for Dujardin and he becomes very, very famous here, it will be “a nice accident,” he says. “but I don’t have this dream. I have a nice job in France. I’m real free, because I can, um, initier projets”—initiate projects. Back in Paris, he’s put the English lessons on hold and is producing The Players, a collection of short films about men who cheat on their women.
As for the Oscars, Dujardin had cleared his schedule just in case. “I made myself available for this,” he said through his English coach. “I won’t be shooting this fall. We’ll see how far it goes, but it’s a new experience for me, and it’s fun. I don’t feel pressured. It’s another planet here. It’s great. It’s wonderful.” Hazanavicius was remaining skeptical. “Harvey said to me that he believed that the movie could go to the Oscars, but I mean, I’m not stupid. I didn’t believe him. I don’t really know how things work here, so I take all these things smiling. For me it’s a nice story. I see how people enjoy the movie, and I think I did a good job. A very good job.”