SILENT SCREAM The Artist

An interview with the director of this year’s Academy Award
favorite, now gradually trickling into theatres while wowing critics… the envelope
please…

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

This Christmas season – and by
extension the cinematic award nominating season of the Oscars and the Golden
Globes – the very best of its movies arrive laced with an old world
sensibility.

 

When it comes to the colorful emotive
3-D children’s film Hugo, it hardly
seems the case (though 3-D certainly had its start in the ‘40s) that the past
has much to do the proceedings. Other than it being set in the ‘30s, in a Paris train station where
the young orphan “Hugo Cabret” (Asa Butterfield) takes a shine to a persnickety
toy seller (Ben Kingsley), while a dastardly station inspector (Sacha Baron
Cohen) attempts to rustle him into an orphanage. Yet, Hugo is based on a true
story in that the torn down toy seller (who has a connection to the film’s
informational device – an old timey automaton) is Georges Méliès, a pioneer in
pre-cinema cinema. A Trip to the Moon,
a famous 1902 Méliès short, was cheaply duplicated by his rival, Thomas Edison,
so that Méliès could make no money from his discoveries. Bitter, Méliès became
a toy seller until Hollywood
rediscovered his inventiveness in the early ‘30s before his passing in 1938. As
is the case with the Lumière brothers, there would be no cinema without Méliès’
innovations and clever art work.

 

Director Michel Hazanavicius’
already-acclaimed (it nabbed six Golden
Globe nominations
this week, and is already hitting film critics’ best-of
lists for 2011) The Artist, though,
goes several steps further. Or backward.  The new French black-and-white silent film
(lensed in Hollywood) is about the Hollywood
silent film era which means it is about America and its dream merchants,
for sure. But it is far more intimate than that, despite its varied sweeping
scores and Busby Berkley-worthy sets.

 

It is a love letter to the art
form which America
turned into an industry. It is a love letter to American brashness, boldness,
bigness and confidence. It is a love letter to the very idea of an industry
that allowed swashbuckling men with wry mustaches and confident smiles to
remain silent until the talkies came in and it could allow quietude no longer.
For some, the silence was golden and sound was devastating. When, in its first
scene, carefree top-of-the-heap movie star “George Valentin” (Jean Dujardin) is
being tortured by his captors, the title card: comes up “Speak!”; an alarm goes
off. Soon that will become a mantra, then a dictate, then a curse to those who
were unconfident that their fans would still love them if they spoke. Like
Valentin who goes through the melodrama’s paces with vigor then torture then
resolve then the brightest of ideas.

 

Bring in a comfortably chummy
co-star and live-in buddy in the guise of a lovable Jack Russell terrier; an
unspoken love and dedication from a nobody admirer (“Peppy Miller,” played by
Bérénice Bejo), who becomes Valentin’s biggest rival (other than his own ego,
fear and reluctance); exaggeratedly mugging faces (especially that of a studio
boss played by John Goodman); Age of Hollywood esprit (and decoration); and a denouement that involves, as it
always does in the world of pre-‘50s realism, a tap dance; and you have in The Artist what is probably this year’s
Academy Award winning favorite.

 

At the very least, The Artist is an American audience
favorite according to what its director/writer Hazanavicius has witnessed.

 

“The strength of the responses has
been overwhelming,” says Hazanavicius. “You can’t expect that or rather that is
not something I expect.” Hazanavicius goes on to say that the first time that
he screened it in the United
States was during the Telluride Film
Festival of 2011. Yes, people were laughing loudly. But for a culture that
doesn’t take to uproarious laughter (unless it is Jerry Lewis), Hazanavicius
was in a panic. “I was afraid at that moment as that level of laughter is. That
is not something the French do unless it is hilarious. I could not tell if the
audience was enjoying the movie or laughing at the movie. Finally, I could tell
that the Telluride audience was delighted. Here, in the United States, people express their pleasure
much more than in France.
People from many countries are enjoying the movie but it is special here. We
are telling your story and you people are touched by that I think.”

 

Hazanavicius goes on to say that
there’s something very special in the manner in which The Artist speaks to
we-the-people. “It’s an American story with American characters. Maybe because
it was made by a French director is something more touching for American
audiences.”

 

Audiences everywhere know Hazanavicius
for his camp action suspense driven films (and French hits) OSS 117, Lost in Rio and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (both starring Dujardin and Bejo), the sorts of films that “Valentin” might’ve
played if he came up in the Bond ‘60s. Hazanavicius, a sort-of a formalist of
period filmmaking, wanted to make a silent film, one where the expressiveness
of the faces pushed the story forward. The highly stylized and immediately
charming The Artist has that in
spades. For Hazanavicius, the format came first.

“It was just something I wanted to
do.” Then he tried to figure out what sort of story would work best for his
silvery halides and his faster frames per second. “What would thematically
serve the silent medium?” asks Hazanavicius. “I thought the love story and
especially the melodrama. The format moves you to be poetic in a way yet to be
melodramatic. I also wanted to put funny things in it.”

 

Hazanavicius managed to be
authentic without aping the silent film form. He filmed in Hollywood’s old back lots. He sped the frames
per second so everyone seemed to move faster. Ludovic Bource, Hazanavicius’
composer-of-choice for the last twelve years, created a richly varied and
period evocative score. “Old Hollywood films
and classical music had to become his second languages. I asked a lot of him.
He had to immerse himself in the spirit of that kind of music from that era
like Franz Waxman and Elmer Bernstein in particular. He’s not a classical
composer so he had to study hard and when he did it, then had to follow the
track of the story, the emotional track. He had to understand every turning
point.

 

Hazanavicius did something simple
when it came to filming: he succumbed to the period entirely. He laughs as he
states that when most directors try to re-create, they merely think about the
period but don’t bother trying to shoot it as they did then. “For instance, you
can’t shoot a character and action from the 1930s with a Steadicam because that
didn’t exist then. I can’t work like that. I tried to work with the old
devices, the way shots were framed then and such.”

 

Though already well versed in the
era, Hazanavicius had to immerse himself in the silent film lexicon – “American
films mostly, especially during the last five years of the silents like
Murnau’s Sunrise and King Vidor’s The Crowd and
anything from Max Sennett’s studio.” Other influences though were films from
John Ford, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen
Kane
(which you can sense in The Artist’s hazy light and shadows), and Sunset Boulevard, the latter known for
it’s themes of new stars vs. stars from the past and the notion of “they had
faces then” that blow throughout The
Artist
like warm familiar breezes. Those faces then had to be spot on when
casting for silence; in particular “Valentin” who goes from winkingly Douglas
Fairbanks-like to subtly fearful. As both leads had starred in Hazanavicius’
previous works (Bejo is the director’s life partner with whom he’s fathered
children), he had them in mind before the film started to roll and had written
the screenplay around.

 

“I had to think of them as actors
and human beings and their faces made into fantasy,” says Hazanavicius, of Bejo
and Dujardin. “Everybody else though, their faces had to say something before
they spoke. Expressive actors. I could not work with poker faces.”

 

There’s not a poker face in
Hazanavicius’ deck. There’s nothing but aces in The Artist.

 

 

[Pictured in photo:
Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) and Bérénice Bejo
(Peppy Miller); courtesy The Weinstein Company
]

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