Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Best of Black Sheep: THE ARTIST

An interview with THE ARTIST director, Michel Hazanavicius and star, Jean Dujardin

As is ordinarily the rule during the holiday season, film audiences are inundated with grandiose family fare and a slew of prestige pictures designed to use the power of words to move people to both laughter and tears. One notable exception this year falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum but does so without uttering a single syllable.

THE ARTIST, French director, Michel Hazanavicius’s ode to an era of cinema that has long been forgotten, will most certainly differentiate itself from the glut of awards season contenders this year, simply by being the charming delight of a film that it is. There is one other factor that will likely get everyone talking about it though; it’s silent.

As I’m sure you can imagine, getting THE ARTIST made was no easy feat. “At the very beginning, I felt very lonely because nobody wanted to make this movie,” Hazanavicius tells me when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the many carefully chosen festival stops THE ARTIST made on its path towards tentative Oscar gold. “Now, to see so many people delighted to see the film, it’s very gratifying,” he concludes, with sincere and evident appreciation.

The idea to make a silent movie was one Hazanavicius tossed around for years and one that he is certain he is not alone in having. “It is a fantasy that I think many directors have,” he claims.  “A lot of us would love to at least try to do it. Maybe I wanted it a little bit more.” It was not until after he found success with his OSS 117 spy film series that anyone took his idea seriously though. “Once you have some success, people don’t see you the same way,” he admits. “Suddenly, something that could be insane becomes doable.”

Hazanavicius, watching the magic happen.

And so Hazanavicius enlisted the help of his OSS 117 stars, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (who is, incidentally, also his wife), to take on the leads in his crazy dream project. According to Hazanavicius, Bejo was on board from the start, but Dujardin was somewhat concerned when he first heard of the idea. “Yes, I thought he was crazy but Michel is incredibly hard working,” Dujardin confided to me, when we too met at this year’s TIFF. “Michel’s preparation ahead of time made everything go smooth though and he has advanced his career ten years with this film.”

Hazanavicius’s research included screening several silent films, his favorites being the American examples from the final years of the silent era (1924-1929). “I watched a lot of silent films to understand the rules and there are more rules than in a usual movie,” he explains. “In many ways though, it was more freeing. You can go places you usually don’t go because it does not have to be so realistic.”

Despite all his well researched knowledge on the subject, Hazanavicius knew that selling THE ARTIST  to mainstream audiences would not be so simple. This awareness directly influenced the story of the film. “I thought that to tell a story about a silent actor would make things easier for the audience to accept it was a silent movie,” he says of the story’s origins. In keeping with that, Dujardin plays a successful Hollywood star who falls out of favour when he refuses to acknowledge the “talkies” as anything but a passing fad.

Modern audiences might find the shift in pace to be an adjustment at first, but what makes THE ARTIST  so successful is its inherent celebration of the cinema itself. By scaling everything back, Hazanavicius reminds us what true movie magic is. The fact that he and his incredibly talented cast, which also includes John Goodman and James Cromwell, do so without any dialogue, begs the question, do today’s movies talk way too much?

“Language is very practical but it is usually just information,” Hazanavicius responds. “It’s so rich to communicate in other ways and it is too easy to just use words.” This is a sentiment that Dujardin also agrees on. “The overuse of dialogue in modern movies is just a sign of not trusting the actor’s performance. Many things can be expressed without words.”

Whether general filmgoers embrace THE ARTIST remains to be seen but at this stage, that almost seems beside the point. “The arch of this film’s journey is such a nice story,” says a very proud, Hazanavicius. “And it’s still barely beginning.”

Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell

George Valentin (on a title card): I won’t talk. I won’t say a word!

Some critics would be hard pressed to find genuine artistry in the film industry today, but they needn’t look any further than THE ARTIST, French director, Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to another era. It is a fine celebration of the cinema and the art involved in making the movies feel magical. True to the period in which it is set (Hollywood, 1927), the film is black and white, shot in the more box-y 1.33:1 aspect ratio and, perhaps most notably, the film is silent. Somehow though, without a single word uttered throughout, THE ARTIST keeps you hanging on every frame.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the artist in THE ARTIST, believes the introduction of sound into film to be a gimmick, a passing fad. You and I both know how very wrong he was but he held true to the cinema’s authentic and humble origins. His refusal to grow and change with the times finds him falling out of favour with his studio and subsequently continuing to fall, only this time on hard times. Meanwhile, the woman he is in love with, actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife) is being swept up in the emerging success of the “talkies”. Valentin must essentially adapt or die; he must find his voice again in order to finally be heard by his public and the woman he loves. As simple as the plot is, it is its refined execution that makes the whole exercise seem effortless, allowing nothing but great warmth and passion to emanate from the screen.

It’s funny how we take things like dialogue for granted and it’s hard to believe that the movies really were like this at one point in time. As demonstrated in the film’s opening sequence, elegant theatres would be filled to capacity with patrons decked out in their finest wares, anxiously awaiting the latest screen adventures of their favorite Hollywood stars. An orchestra would not only fill the room with music but it would also fill the silence between the actors on the screen. Emotion and intention needed to be clearly communicated without speaking in order for the film to be successful. And while it may at times come off as exaggerated or false, the point was usually made. By honouring the silent film and doing it such great justice, THE ARTIST almost renders the usage of words completely pointless.

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