The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius’s Contemporary Classic

“The best directors of the classical Hollywood era almost all come from silent film,” says writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. “I wanted to do a silent movie to see if I could tell a story with only images. It’s the purest way.”

“People who don’t watch silent movies think it’s an intellectual experience,” he says. “But it’s the opposite. It’s very sensual.”

The Artist is both thoroughly anachronistic and entirely captivating, a love letter to the sunset of Tinseltown’s silent years. Set between 1927 and 1932, this A Star is Born tale can be embraced by audiences not looking for anything but pure enjoyment, even if they get much more. Filmed entirely in and around Hollywood, the story focuses on a mustachioed and preening Jean Dujardin as the Douglas Fairbanks-style silent star George Valentin, (Jean Dujardin), whose career goes south when the talkies arrive, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an indefatigable extra who steals the limelight with the help of a Dietrichesque wink and penciled-in beauty mark on her upper lip.

Hazanavicius wrote the two principal characters with his players in mind. The three are close: Hazanavicius and Bejo are married, and the trio had collaborated on earlier projects, including the 2006 secret-agent send-up OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

“I know that when I worked with Jean I always thought he was one of these actors who is very rare, because he can act as good in a close-up and wide shot. He can act with his body and does something with his body that is very cinematographic. But he’s just as good at playing interior and that is very rare. Only a few actors can do that, like Peter Sellers and Vittorio Gassman and, of course, Charlie Chaplin. With Bérénice, I really wanted to offer her a role that truly fits her, that was made especially for her. It’s difficult for young actresses in France–and I think in many countries–because there are three or four main actresses who get all the roles.”

“I really wanted to do a melodrama and try to make something more sentimental and touching without any irony. I think that the most challenging thing for me is not trying to be funny and taking the risk to be the stupid guy that is disconnected with reality and the problems of reality. This is not how I live, but I wanted to do that kind of charming, lovely, modest story.”

Hazanavicius wrote The Artist with two people in mind from the start: Berenice Bejo, his lovely wife, for the female lead, and Dujardin for the male lead. And while he knew that Bejo would agree to do it, he says he was never sure that Dujardin would, too. “Berenice is an actress — people know her in France, but she’s not a big star,” he explains. “But Jean is a very huge star in France — he’s really like George Clooney.” Fortunately, both actors signed up for the project, in spite — or perhaps because — of the unique challenges that it would involve, including: having to act in a style that neither had ever employed before (and that precious few other actors had employed over the past 80-plus years), learning to tapdance at a professional level (body doubles were out of the question since Hazanavicius insisted that full-body shots be used), and shooting the film in just 35 days (on Hollywood studio backlots far from their homes).

  • The film was nominated for six Golden Globes, the most of any 2011 film, and won three: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Original Score, and Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Dujardin.
  • It was nominated for twelve BAFTAs and won seven, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor for Dujardin, and Best Original Screenplay for Hazanavicius. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director for Hazanavicius, and Best Actor for Dujardin, making him the first French actor ever to win in this category. It was also the first French-produced film to win Best Picture, and the first mainly silent film to win since 1927’s Wings won at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929. It was also the first film presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio to win since 1953’s From Here to Eternity. Additionally, it was the first black-and-white film to win since 1993’s Schindler’s List, though the latter contained limited colour sequences; it was the first 100% black-and-white film to win since 1960’s The Apartment.
  • In France it was nominated for ten César Awards, winning six, including Best Film, Best Director for Hazanavicius, and Best Actress for Bejo. The Artist has received more awards than any other French film.

Hazanavicius fell in love with movies as a kid, but his journey to becoming a filmmaker himself was slow and incremental. He worked as an intern on a film set, then penned gags French comedies, then wrote and directed some shorts, and then, in a typically funny and mischevious move, put together a film using clips from well-known Hollywood productions, only dubbed with outrageous French dialogue, which became a viral Internet sensation in France and helped to put him on the map. His highest profile films, prior to The Artist, were OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), two installments in a French film franchise built around a James Bond-like character, only comedic.

It was after the first but before the second OSS film that it first occurred to Hazanavicius that he’d like to make a black-and-white silent movie. It was an idea that would have seemed crazy to most people, but not to him — “I don’t judge other people and I don’t judge myself” — even though he knew that seeing the idea through “was going to be very difficult” and require creative freedom and partners who were just as eccentric and fearless as himself. He reached out to a producer who was a fan of his work and had previously told him that he would make “any movie” with him, called his bluff, and was very gratified to find that he had meant what he said. Two months later, he had written a full “scenario” — not a “script,” since it is, after all, a silent movie — and began putting the various pieces of the production together.

First of all, it was not an idea, it’s very different. At the very beginning, it’s a desire and that’s not the same thing at all, because when you have the desire to do something, all the work you can do is a positive thing. It’s not something that you calculate. An idea is something you work on to make it work and a desire is much deeper in a way. The immersion, it’s classical, I watched a lot of movies.

First of all, I had the desire for that format, and then when I was talking to people, I felt that people needed justification. Why are you doing a silent movie? Is it just for your own pleasure? I felt it was not enough for them so I realized I have to choose the subject that will make things easier for them and to tell the story of a silent actor makes sense for doing a silent movie. Then, I went to Hollywood. I put the action in Hollywood. I watched a lot of movies, maybe 100 or something close to that. I have tons of DVDs now at home. I don’t know what to do with them because they’re not useful anymore. My kids never watched them. I read a lot of autobiographies, listened to a lot of music by classical era composers like Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman and Leonard Bernstein. I listened to only that kind of music the entire time I was writing, even at home. I looked at a lot of photos from Hollywood in the ‘20s, photographs of silent movies being filmed all over the world which are very specific and very evocative. Berenice, the lead actress, is my wife. She really followed the same path with me.

Filming without sound, he notes, was one of his greatest challenges though one that he relished. “I really like this form of expression. I think it’s a special experience for an audience, because you don’t use your brain really, you use something else. Language is not the only way to communicate. When you have a baby who doesn’t speak, you find ways to communicate with him and it’s always very touching when a baby smiles at you. When you are in a couple, the most important things you don’t say with words, you say them with your eyes, with your hands, with silence or just with the attention you take. I wanted to bring that feeling, that emotion to the film.”