The past week has been amazing for The Artist, a black-and-white, mostly silent fantasy from France that has suddenly become a leading contender for best picture at the Academy Awards, potentially the first silent movie to win an Oscar in more than 80 years.
On Tuesday, the New York Film Critics Circle picked The Artist as the best film of 2011, with director Michel Hazanavicius taking the award for best director. The film also led the Independent Spirit Awards competition, tied with Take Shelter, with five nominations.
A love note to old Hollywood, Hazanavicius's film combines dazzling, if unfamiliar, French stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the director's wife, with an American cast (John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller) in a story set in the 1920s. The film follows a dashing Douglas Fairbanks-like star, George Valentin (Dujardin), who is adored by women and accompanied everywhere by his clever Jack Russell (Uggie). But George's adventure films have a certain formula and he becomes a has-been when talkies arrive – until he is helped out by an ingénue, Peppy Miller (Bejo).
For many years, Hazanavicius had nursed a dream of making a silent movie, not for film historians or devotees, but as a contemporary entertainment. He had always admired the great cinematic storytellers from the silent era – Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau – but he doubted that he could sell the idea to a producer. "No one would do it," he says. "French television won't even show black-and-white movies on television any more."
It wasn't until Hazanavicius had a couple of hits with two spy spoofs based on the novels of Jean Bruce ( OSS 117, Cairo: Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio) that he finally had the clout to broach his idea. While shooting the last OSS film in Brazil, he told Dujardin of his notion. The star responded: "Well, I'd like to go to the moon, but it's impossible."
Finally, Hazanavicius came up with a pitch. Though a silent film might not play as well in France as films made in French, it had a ready audience around the world, where language barriers would not exist. Like the animated Pixar movies, which he greatly admires, it wasn't limited by language. Besides, it would be about Hollywood, and everyone knew Hollywood.
He finally found a champion in producer Thomas Langmann, the son of Oscar-winner Claude Berri, who directed Manon of the Spring and produced Roman Polanski's Tess. Langmann had worked a bit with filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Francis Ford Coppola in the United States, and he and Hazanavicius decided that the movie should be shot in Hollywood.
They tossed around ideas – at one point toying with the idea of an invisible character – before finally coming up with a story that, like Singing in the Rain, was about the transition to the sound era – but without sound.
Hazanavicius, who immersed himself in reading about and watching vintage cinema, decided that the most universal form of silent film was a melodrama. "Even most Chaplin films are really melodramas with comic interludes," he says.
He shot the $20-million film in Los Angeles, using historical locations and studio lots (Warner Bros. and Paramount). The American crew included costume designer Mark Bridges, who worked on all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, using old studio tour footage to help create the clothing style. The film was shot in colour – modern black-and-white stock isn't grainy enough – and then transformed to black and white.
Critical to the film's success was the support of American mogul Harvey Weinstein, who saw The Artist last March at a private screening in Paris. The film was a surprise late addition to the Cannes competition in May, although, through Weinstein, it already had American and British distribution in place. When Dujardin won the best-actor award, it was a huge boost.
Dujardin, a 39-year-old comedian who is silly-handsome both off the screen and on, is modest about his contribution to the film: "I was Michel's instrument," he says. As he points out, a lot of the "acting' is actually in Hazanavicius's directorial choices. For example, the film loses its high-contrast crispness and grows more grey when George is depressed.
Beyond his basic physical idea of the character, of "Douglas Fairbanks with a Gene Kelly smile," Dujardin says it was really a role like any other. "I wasn't a silent character. You just couldn't hear me speaking."
The success of The Artist probably will not lead to a rash of new silent films, although, as Martin Scorsese's new 3-D film Hugo shows, most directors are in love with early cinema, a time when nearly all the major innovations of the budding art form were created.
As Hazanavicius began touring the festival circuit with his movie, he says other filmmakers approached him and expressed their envy. "I was talking to Alexander Payne at another festival and he said, 'You did what I wanted to do. You made a silent movie.' I think, really, every filmmaker has this fantasy. Why do other directors dream of doing this? Because it was a true director's medium. The writing was created in the service of the direction. It's not naturalistic. It's an oneiric [dream-like] form that's a little like saying to the audience 'Once upon a time....' "
And what does Hazanavicius hope that a contemporary audience can gain from being taken back to the experience of watching a film in 1927?
The director ponders for a moment before he answers: "That there are other ways to tell stories. But at the end of the day, it's what story you are telling. I hope that the gimmick is not the only thing in this movie. I hope it's not just a silent movie. This is something you care about at the beginning, but at a certain point, you forget that and you just accept the story."