A Silent Film Makes Noise

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

In 'The Artist' French star Jean Dujardin channels a bygone Hollywood era.

For once the Oscar buzz is louder than the movie. A silent film in black and white, a slim-budget promenade through period Hollywood on the arm of unheralded French leads, The Artist screams long shot. And yet from Cannes to Los Angeles, Michel Hazanavicius's bold throwback--its light whimsy, darker intrigue, and full orchestral score--is the talk of the town. Atop the marquee, France's Jean Dujardin is a revelation as a silent-film icon troubled by the new talking pictures. He won best-actor honors at Cannes in May, memorably dropping to one tuxedoed knee before Robert De Niro, the festival's jury chief, as he collected his prize.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is the star with the lady-killer smile, Clark Gable mustache, and scene-stealing screen-dog sidekick. Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo, seen above) is the eager ingenue. Like Singin' in the Rain, the film opens at a white-tie movie premiere in 1927. The staging, indeed the story, recalls that 1952 classic--one of many unabashed homages to regale cineastes--although The Artist summons gloomy lows to offset its cheery highs. George's and Peppy's lives intertwine and love takes hold. But when the studios add sound to their films, she shines as he falters.

Strong performances from John Goodman as a studio boss and James Cromwell as a devoted chauffeur back up the French leads. And Hazanavicius's technical trickery works magic: subtly accelerated action, 22 frames per second instead of 24, renders period flavor, while the slight cheat of 1940s lighting lends heady glamour: a canvas for Dujardin's physical heroics.

The lead with the matinee-idol looks is a stranger to Hollywood. (Harvey Weinstein's drive to bag the first best-picture Oscar for a silent film since 1929 has Dujardin, 39, shuttling between Paris and Los Angeles with an English tutor.) But he is beloved in his native France, the second-highest-paid Gallic star after 2007 Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Le Monde calls him "perhaps the most American of French actors" for his virile physique and fun-loving flair.

With tap lessons but no dialogue to master for The Artist, Dujardin soaked in silent classics by F. W. Murnau and Frank Borzage. He studied Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly, and Vittorio Gassman for movement before a 35-day Hollywood shoot. But for all its novelty the pressure falls away on a "silent" set, since quiet isn't required for shooting. "It's pretty comfortable. [Usually] the silence on set can be pretty heavy--when you hear 'Camera! Action!' It can be inhibiting," Dujardin told Newsweek at a taping in a vintage studio off the Champs-Elysees. "But here the fact the sound continues, the sound of the extras, the city, it's almost less like cinema. You can quickly get caught up in it. It's very alive."

This is Dujardin's third film written and directed by Hazanavicius--the first two, ironically, are troves for great lines. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio, are relentlessly funny French spy spoofs set in the 1950s and 1960s. …