The Artist: The Artist’s way

The Artist’s way

Jean Dujardin: "The overuse of dialogue in modern movies is just a sign of not trusting the actor's performance"
Photo: courtesy of Alliance Vivafilm

Michel Hazanavicius directs Jean Dujardin as a silent movie star in The Artist

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 for most of its running time.

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 since premiering in Cannes last May, where Jean Dujardin won the coveted Best Actor prize.

"Now, to see so many people delighted to see the film, it’s very gratifying," he concludes with sincere and evident appreciation.

The idea of making a silent movie was one Hazanavicius tossed around for years. 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."

And so Hazanavicius enlisted the help of his OSS 117 stars, Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (who is, incidentally, also the filmmaker’s 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 the idea.

"Yes, I thought he was crazy, but Michel is incredibly hard working," Jean Dujardin confided to me when we met at this year’s TIFF. "Michel’s preparation ahead of time made everything go smoothly, though, and he has advanced his career ten years with this film."

Hazanavicius’ research included screening several silent films, his favourites being the American examples from the final years of the silent era (1924-29). "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 George Valentin, 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, reveal that magic without any dialogue inevitably leads to 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 arc of this film’s journey is such a nice story," says a very proud Hazanavicius, "and it’s still barely beginning."

The Artist
In theatres December 9

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