At the Cannes Film Festival last year, not everyone was on the same page. Terrence Malick fans loved The Tree of Life, many critics loved Drive, Lars von Trier fans reluctantly admitted Melancholia was pretty good, though everyone couldn't resist Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, which despite being a silent black-and-white film, was the most commercial of all the competition entries. It should have won the Palme d'Or. Yet popularity can be a deterrent at such high art events, so that when the prizes were doled out, The Artist was given a kind of consolation prize for best actor, to Jean Dujardin, France's top box office star.
Of course, as jury head, the Malick-loving Robert De Niro had two votes, so was sure to raise his hand for the ultimate winner, The Tree of Life. Hazanavicius wasn't about to complain (as Spike Lee did when a Wim Wenders-led jury voted for Sex, Lies and Videotape over his hugely popular Do the Right Thing in 1989) even if it would have meant a great deal for a French film to have won. (Laurent Cantet's The Class won in 2008, and before that, it had been Maurice Pialat's Under the Sun of Satan, in 1987.)
The Cannes awards now pale into distant memory as The Artist stands to get its just deserts in America. It's currently a Best Picture Oscar frontrunner after being the most nominated film in the Golden Globes and the second most nominated in the Oscar nominations (with 10 to Hugo's 11).
No matter how many prizes The Artist will win Hazanavicius is extremely happy after the trouble he endured in getting the film financed. Ultimately, he admits it came down to one man: Thomas Langmann, Claude Berri's son and producer of 2008's Public Enemy #1.
“In France, the way we mostly finance movies is via TV channels but they don't want black-and-white films,” he explains. “They just don't know how to react to the idea of a silent movie! Thomas was crazy enough to follow me, to trust me, and to use his own money, which is very unusual. In France, nobody puts in their own money, so I am very grateful to him.”
Langmann just committed to producing Hazanavicius's upcoming war drama, which is inspired by the 1948 Fred Zinnemann film, The Search, but is set in contemporary war-torn Chechnya. It will feature The Artist's Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius's partner and the mother of his two children.
Hazanavicius, 44, is a director who knows what he wants and he is not about to make compromises. His monumental success with the two OSS 117 blockbuster spy spoofs (2006's Nest of Spies and 2009's Lost in Rio starred Dujardin, while Bejo co-starred in the former) guaranteed him a certain degree of control over whatever he would do. With The Artist, he wanted to send a love letter to Hollywood and he has delivered a romantic comedy that is impossible not to love. The fact that the actor, actress and director are such a tight unit makes them a force to be reckoned with.
“It's very difficult to know where the idea for a movie comes from,” Hazanavicius admits. “I know that when I worked with Jean I always thought he was one of these actors who is very rare, because he can act as good in a close-up and wide shot. He can act with his body and does something with his body that is very cinematographic. But he's just as good at playing interior and that is very rare. Only a few actors can do that, like Peter Sellers and Vittorio Gassman and, of course, Charlie Chaplin. With Bérénice, I really wanted to offer her a role that truly fits her, that was made especially for her. It's difficult for young actresses in France–and I think in many countries–because there are three or four main actresses who get all the roles.”
An homage to silent movies but with cinematic references from all eras—spot the reference to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive—this A Star is Born tale can be embraced by audiences not looking for anything but pure enjoyment, even if they get much more. Filmed entirely in and around Hollywood, the story focuses on a mustachioed and preening Jean Dujardin as the Douglas Fairbanks-style silent star George Valentin, who plunges into despair after Hollywood abandons silent cinema. When Bejo's song-and-dance gal, Peppy Miller, comes to fame in the talkies, she does not forget George helping her in the beginning and comes to his aid.
“In my own life I am not nostalgic at all,” remarks Hazanavicius, “but I think there are some periods that are more cinematic than others. It's true that in my movies I am not really inspired by the Paris of today. I think it's funny that Woody Allen wants to film there and I think an American eye is better, because he is not afraid of the clichés about Paris. He can do something like walking on the wharves of the Seine when every French guy knows that it smells really bad, it smells like pee. Nobody walks there but he is not afraid to do it. I guess it's the same for me going to America. I made some very clichéd shots and some of the crew told me it was such an American shot, that nobody there could do that. It had to be a European guy to do it.”
Filming without sound, he notes, was one of his greatest challenges though one that he relished. “I really like this form of expression. I think it's a special experience for an audience, because you don't use your brain really, you use something else. Language is not the only way to communicate. When you have a baby who doesn't speak, you find ways to communicate with him and it's always very touching when a baby smiles at you. When you are in a couple, the most important things you don't say with words, you say them with your eyes, with your hands, with silence or just with the attention you take. I wanted to bring that feeling, that emotion to the film.”
The Artist is released in cinemas February 2.