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Winner of the prize for Best Actor at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards, Michel Hazanavicius’s ‘The Artist’ is a heartfelt and entertaining valentine to classic American cinema.
Set during the twilight of Hollywood’s silent era and shot on location in Los Angeles, ‘The Artist’ tells the story of a charismatic movie star unhappily confronting the new world of talking pictures. Mixing comedy, romance and melodrama, ‘The Artist’ is itself an example of the form it celebrates: a black-and-white silent film that relies on images, actors and music to weave its singular spell.
Hollywood, 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s reigning silent screen idols, instantly recognizable with his slim moustache and signature white tie and tails. Starring in exotic tales of intrigue and derring-do, the actor has turned out hit after hit for Kinograph, the studio run by cigar-chomping mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman).
His success has brought him an elegant mansion and an equally elegant wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Chauffeured to the studio each day by his devoted driver Clifton (James Cromwell), George is greeted by his own smiling image, emblazoned on the posters prominently placed throughout the Kinograph lot. As he happily mugs for rapturous fans and reporters at his latest film premiere, George is a man indistinguishable from his persona — and a star secure in his future.
For young dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the future will be what she makes of it. Vivacious and good-humored, with an incandescent smile and a flapper’s ease of movement, Peppy first crosses George’s path at his film premiere and then as an extra on his latest film at Kinograph.
As they film a brief dance sequence, the leading man and the newcomer fall into a natural rhythm, the machinery of moviemaking fading into the background. But the day must finally end, sending the matinee idol and the eager hopeful back to their respective places on the Hollywood ladder.
And Hollywood itself will soon fall under sway of a captivating new starlet: talking pictures. George wants no part of the new technology, scorning the talkie as a vulgar fad destined for the dustbin. By 1929, Kinograph is preparing to cease all silent film production and George faces a choice: embrace sound, like the rising young star Peppy Miller; or risk a slide into obscurity.
A celebration of Hollywood moviemaking at its most magical, ‘The Artist’ represents the fulfillment of a long-held dream for writer/director Michel Hazanavicius. “From the beginning of my career, I fantasized about making a silent film,” he says. “I call it a fantasy because whenever I mentioned it, I’d only get an amused reaction – no one took this seriously.”
But Hazanavicius was entirely serious. The legendary filmmakers he most admired had begun their careers in silent cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, and, in his early years as a screenwriter, Billy Wilder. Mainly, though, he was drawn to the format for creative reasons.
“As a director, a silent film makes you face your responsibilities,” he remarks. “Everything is in the image, in the organization of the signals you’re sending to the audience. And it’s an emotional cinema, it’s sensorial; the fact that there is no text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story that only works on the feelings you have created. I thought it would be a magnificent challenge and that if I could manage it, it would be very rewarding.”
In 2006, Hazanavicius scored a critical and commercial success with his second theatrical feature, the buoyant spy spoof ‘OSS 117 – Cairo, Nest of Spies’, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. A sequel, ‘OSS 117 – Lost in Rio’, followed in 2009, cementing Hazanavicius’s reputation as a maker of artful and crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Set in the late 50s and early 60s, respectively, the films had given Hazanavicius a solid grounding in the logistics of period storytelling and cinematic tribute. With those back-to-back hits under his belt, the filmmaker decided to pursue his silent movie for his next project.
His quest for a producer eventually led him to Thomas Langmann, whose credits include the award-winning ‘Mesrine’ gangster films and whose father was the Oscar-winning filmmaker Claude Berri. Langmann immediately understood what Hazanavicius wanted to do and why. “Thomas is a producer like no other,” asserts Hazanavicius.
“Not only did he take what I said seriously, I saw in his eyes that he believed in it. It was no longer a fantasy but a project. I could start working.” Says Langmann, “Michel had such passion and understanding for the genre, and it was clear he had the creativity and drive to make a silent movie that would be vibrant, beautiful and relevant to the 21st Century. The whole idea was so daring, so enthralling, I didn’t hesitate to pledge my support to Michel.”
As he began mulling story ideas, Hazanavicius remembered an anecdote he’d heard from a family friend, screenwriter and playwright named Jean-Claude Grumberg. One day, Grumberg pitched a producer an idea about a silent movie actor ruined by the arrival of talkies. “The producer had replied: ‘That’s wonderful, but the ’20s — that’s too expensive. Couldn’t it be set in the ’50s?’” Hazanavicius recalls.
“That’s how this idea of a film set in the Hollywood of the late ’20s and early ’30s, in black and white, was formed. I don’t make films to reproduce reality. What I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is, a show. In any case, you can’t remake films exactly the way they were made 90 years ago.
Audiences have been exposed to so much; they are sharper, quicker and a lot smarter. It’s exciting to stimulate them.” He continues, “My starting point was a silent movie actor who doesn’t want to hear anything about the talkies. I circled around this character, and then I got the idea of this young starlet and crossed destinies. Everything fell into place, including the themes — pride, fame, vanity, love.”
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