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?
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.”
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.”