It may strike some as overconfident, but French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius isn’t shocked that people love his movie “The Artist,” which despite being dialogue-free and black and white is being embraced by critics and ticket-buyers alike. (The film, crowned the year’s best by the New York Film Critics Circle, will open in D.C. on Christmas Day.)
Sure, he says, he was taken aback by the epic standing ovation at Cannes, which lasted at least 12 minutes. But while the strength of the response surprises him, “it’s not like I did a movie very hermetic or dark. I tried to be entertaining, to make a movie that seduced people.”
What does surprise him is the dog.
Viewers go crazy for Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier so charming he may make cinephiles forget all about Cosmo, the terrier from this summer’s “Beginners.” The filmmaker is puzzled that so many admirers comment on how “expressive” the dog is.
“Actually, I’m not sure he’s so expressive,” he argues. “He’s very cute,” the filmmaker allows, but “he doesn’t incline his head, he has really a stone face; he’s not an actor. He’s just going from Point A to Point B.” (And because filming without a sound crew meant Uggie’s trainer could call to him openly during takes, Uggie shouldn’t even get credit for that.)
But the writer/director acknowledges that although he initially “just thought it was funny” to put a dog in the script, it turned out to be crucial. He realized the dog was why people liked the movie’s leading man.
“When you look at the character of George Valentin” — a silent-era movie star whose career ends with the arrival of talkies — “he’s selfish, egocentric, proud. He’s mean with his own wife, he’s not a positive character. But the fact is, the dog loves him and follows him during all the movie. What happens is, the audience trusts the dog. We think if the dog loves the guy, the guy has to be a good person.”
All true, but let’s also give some credit to actor Jean Dujardin, who has a face made for the silent era, particularly when it’s decorated with a pencil moustache. Dujardin, who starred in the two pitch-perfect James Bond spoofs Hazanavicius made before this film (under the rubric “OSS 117”), knows exactly how much eyebrow-wagging the camera wants from him — no small feat in a film intent on celebrating, not mocking, early cinema.
The director encountered silent comedies as a child, when his grandfather took him to Paris revival houses to watch Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. Not until he became a filmmaker himself did he discover F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, and other trailblazers of drama and romance. “When I discovered those movies,” he recalls, “I realized how powerful the format could be.”
He decided he’d like to work in that mode himself, using modern methods (including better film stock and special effects) to replicate the look of the period and relying on title cards, not sound, for the dialogue. Studios did not exactly compete to finance the film, even when Hazanavicius argued that the absence of dialogue meant the movie was equally appealing around the world.
“To be really honest with you,” he says of that sales pitch, “I didn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth. When you’re looking for money, you say things when you are not sure.”
If the absence of dialogue hindered financing, though, it helped the director in another way. Though the movie features French actors Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (an Argentine native who has two children with Hazanavicius), it was shot in Hollywood with an English-speaking supporting cast: “I have a strong French accent,” the director says. “I’m not sure I could tell a great American actor, ‘You should say it another way.’ But the language for this was not English or French, the language was body language, so it changed a lot. I had absolutely no pressure. I kept my, how could I say, my director’s authority.”
Moviegoers with only a fleeting knowledge of silent film might expect “The Artist” to be full of big gestures, wide eyes and hammy acting. It isn’t. Hazanavicius will have you know that many stars of the pre-sound era were much more subtle than that. “Really, if you look at the last four or five years of the silent era, from ’24 through ’28 or ’29, the actors were very natural.
“If you think of movies in 1910, for example,” he explains, “the codes of acting were really, like, 19th century. Yeah, they were putting their hand at their throat, they were mugging and everything. But in ’27, they were not doing that anymore at all. They were natural, especially the women; their acting is very modern.”
Nevertheless, some actors who thrived in the silents saw their careers die, just as George Valentin’s does, if only because their speaking voices didn’t match their beautiful faces.
In particular, Hazanavicius laments the early disappearance of John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks — not to mention Buster Keaton, whose genius for physical comedy so suited the silent screen that adding sound was as pointless as filming the Mona Lisa in 3D. The filmmaker sees their plight, and his hero’s, as one audiences should have no problem understanding.
“The world is changing so fast that all of us, one day or another, have to face a change. My parents, for example, worked all their life in the same company. It’s not like that anymore at all. You have to be prepared to adapt.”
Even if adaptation means trying something the rest of the world gave up 80 years ago.