FILM With the charisma-oozing agility of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way past opponents and the supreme confidence of Rudolph Valentino leaning, mid-swoon, into a maiden, French director-writer Michel Hazanavicius hits a sweet spot, or beauty mark of sorts, with his radiant new film The Artist.
In a feat worthy of Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, Hazanavicius juggles a marvelously layered love story between a man and a woman, tensions between the silents and the talkies, and a movie buff’s appreciation of the power of film — embodied in particular by early Hollywood’s union of European artistry and American commerce. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who channels Fairbanks, Flynn, and William Powell — and won this year’s Cannes best actor prize) is at the height of his career, adorable Jack Russell by his side, until the talkies threaten to relegate him to yesterday’s news. The talent nurtured in the thick of the studio system yearns for real power, telling the newspapers, “I’m not a puppet anymore — I’m an artist,” and finances and directs his own melodrama, while his youthful protégé Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a yakky flapper age’s new It Girl.
Both a crowd-pleasing entertainment and a loving précis on early film history à la Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, The Artist never checks its brains at the door, remaining self-aware of its own conceit and its forebears, yet unashamed to touch the audience, without an ounce of cynicism. And if you blink, you might miss the allusion to The Artist‘s backstory: in the opening film-within-a-film, Valentin dons a mask and a top hat in a swift tip of the topper to iconic French villain-antihero Fantômas, which provided the initial inspiration for producer Thomas Langmann to approach Hazanavicius.
Langmann wanted the director to do a remake of the 1960s Fantômas movies starring Jean Marais. “I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. It doesn’t interest me,'” recalls the director on a recent visit to San Francisco. Langmann, however, insisted on a movie with the director, who had made the Bond-parody OSS 117 series with Dujardin. “So I said, OK, I’ll do your Fantômas — not your high-tech one, but the 1905 one, the real one, and I’ll do it in black-and-white, and silent.”
In the end, Langmann gave the go-ahead for a silent movie untethered to the Fantômas franchise — “I knew when we met that he was crazy enough to follow me and to support me,” quips Hazanavicius — and with the Valentin character on his mind and two scripts on hand, one for The Artist as it stands and one for the adventure comedy that materializes as the initial film-within-a-film, the director made the silent he had dreamed of, shooting at Hollywood locales such as the Paramount Studio and Mary Pickford’s mansion and utilizing far-from-analog technology when needed (for example, the Hollywood sign is transformed into its original “Hollywoodland” state digitally, and the film’s luminous black-and-white was rendered using 500 ASA color film to get a grainier look).
One of the keys to casting the period spell was keeping everything simple, rather than highlighting obvious tropes. “I put a lot of things out of the frame, always,” Hazanavicius explains, “because when there are too many things, it’s just too much. You show the audience, ‘Look it’s the ’20s! It’s so ’20s! Did you not know we were in the ’20s?’ Sometimes you have to just show a white wall, and that’s enough. The audience is there to believe, so the more you let them believe, the better it is.”
Likewise the lightest touch was required with the actors, who worried about replicating the silent era’s performances and were tasked with conveying everything with the briefest flicker of emotion dancing across the face, or body language (which Béjo memorably plays with in a scene when she mimes an embrace with her would-be heartthrob’s jacket). “I know it was stressful for the actors in the beginning because they wanted to know if I asked for something very special, but I didn’t,” says the director. “They don’t play silent, really — they play ’20s, and I think it’s different. We think [silent film players] overact not because the movies are silent but because the codes of the ’20s are very different from the codes of acting today.
“So what I said to [Dujardin] was very simple: ‘Don’t be upset with the silent thing,'” Hazanavicius continues. “‘You don’t have anything special to do. You have to do what you usually do — you come with your face, your body, your smile, your charm, and you embody the character, and you respect the situation, and everything will be fine.'” Also fueling the feel was the fact that The Artist was shot at 22 frames a second, rather than the standard 24. “It gave us a very small acceleration in the gesture so the way they move is a little bit too fast, so that gives a flavor of the ’20s,” adds the filmmaker.
For Hazanavicius, the draw to make a silent was multipronged. “I wanted to share my experience as an audience member because I love the way the story is told to you in a silent movie,” he says. “There’s a lot of room for you. You can make your own movie. You participate in the storytelling process. I really like it because you’re very close to the story — it’s your voices, your dialogue, your sound design — you’re part of the process, so I really love that.”
Another enticement was the formal challenge of not only assembling the narrative about early film stars, which incidentally echoes that of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but shooting in a silent style, playing with era’s visual codes. To that end, Hazanavicius and leading lady (and romantic partner) Béjo did enormous amounts of research, poring through the period’s films and actors and directors’ biographies. “I hope my future movies will be better thanks to this one,” says the director.
“When I wrote the script, I sent it to the script supervisor, and she said to me, ‘You really want to, I don’t know how to say, show off!'” he remembers. “‘You really want to be remarked [upon].’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I think we all want to be remarked [upon]. I don’t want to make a discreet movie that nobody wants to see.”
Sounds like the words of a real artist.
THE ARTIST opens Fri/2 in San Francisco.