He was the strong, silent type . . .

Fri, Dec 30, 2011, 00:00

The silent, black and white French comedy The Artist looks set to triumph at the 2012 Academy Awards, but its French star, Jean Dujardin, isn’t planning a move to Tinseltown any time soon. TARA BRADYreports

WHO KNEW? In a year when Oscar heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have turned in some of the best work of their glittering careers – War Horseand Hugo, respectively – a black and white silent French comedy is currently the bookies’ favourite to take home the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay 2012. If Vegas touts are quoting correctly it’ll be the first silent picture to win Best Picture since Wingsin 1929.

Certainly, the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup are looking good for The Artist.Director Michel Hazanavicius’s sublime and unlikely crowd-pleaser has already picked up traction with a raft of Golden Globes nominations and has also made an impact with more reliable industry weathervanes, including the Screen Actors Guild and the New York Film Critics Circle.

We know what you’re thinking. Is this going to be one of those awards seasons when largely unwatched critical wows like The Hurt Lockerwin out over popular box-office hits? Not exactly. The Artistis nothing if not accessible. A limited release in the US last weekend brought in screen averages of more than $16,000 per site.

You have to see it to understand the appeal. A genuinely magical motion picture, it’s got romance, car crashes, a dancing dog, swashbuckling swordsmanship, divorce, celebrity, comedy, tragedy, Hollywood vagaries and, in Jean Dujardin’s character, a fictionalised contender for cinema’s First Action Hero. Even Dujardin thought it was a crazy idea at first.

“Yes. Crazy. I thought the film would be impossible to finance in France. Or anywhere.”

We meet in London where the actor can, for now, walk down the street unmolested. Dujardin is a household name in his native country. The former TV comic transitioned into movies six years ago. His recurring role as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath in Michel Hazanavicius’s series of OSS 117spy spoofs has earned him a César nomination for Best Actor, and an Étoile D’Or award, weighty, almost unthinkable accolades for a nominally frivolous genre. Picture Mike Myers getting the nod for Austin Powers and it still undersells the achievement.

“I come from TV,” he says, through a translator he doesn’t always require. “In France they’re such snobs about it. It’s very hard to move from one medium to the other. But I don’t bother with it. I choose projects for myself. I don’t think ‘what would the audience like?’ or ‘what should I be doing?’ I just choose the roles I think will be fun. I think if they’re fun for me they might be fun for somebody else to watch.”

French comedy is a tough sector right now. It’s been a long time since Les Visiteurs went international and the traditional comédie des méprises faces increasing competition from abroad. “We have a bad habit in France of liking other people more than ourselves,” says Dujardin.

“In comedy at least. The French love Farrelly Brothers movies and Judd Apatow movies and they think ‘well, we can’t do that’. We cannot make films like that in France. They have to come from elsewhere. It’s hard for the French to celebrate themselves and let themselves go. They like English comedies and Belgian absurdity or the whole American movement. Anything that comes from elsewhere is better.”

But haven’t we always been led to believe that France was the spiritual home of buffoonery? What about the art of Marcel Marceau? Or Jacques Tati? Or all those awards they’ve given to Jerry Lewis? “Jerry Lewis. Exactly. He’s an American. Jerry Lewis. Coca Cola.”

Don’t misunderstand. Dujardin is a big Jerry Lewis fan. He was, he says, a shy kid at school until clowning around gave him the means to express himself. He loved watching and copying physical performers such as Lewis, Kevin Kline, Jean Paul Belmondo and Gérard Depardieu. For Dujardin, acting is just an extension of acting up.

“Before you become an actor you become a jester,” he says. “At school. At home. You imitate your teachers and parents. It’s a way to deform life. And one day you’re wondering what to do with your life and you discover it’s your career.”

Michel Hazanavicius wrote The Artistfor Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, stars of the director’s OSS 117sequence. In the film, Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent-era Hollywood heartthrob who finds himself on the scrapheap with the advent of talkies. The dazzling Bejo plays his love interest, a former fangirl who hits the big time just as George’s career hits the skids. Save a few playful jokes Hazanavicius never cheats.

His cast, including Tinseltown loans John Goodman, Missi Pyle, James Cromwell and Uggy the dog, are required to wordlessly emote and play for laughs for the duration. Dujardin had to learn how to tap dance and to fence – “litres of sweat for months”, he says – but most of his preparation was taken up with cinema. “He wrote it for me but when I first read the script I thought I don’t know how I’m going to get there to play this part,” admits the actor.

“Michel is asking me to be Chaplin. And Chaplin is a genius. No one can be Chaplin except Chaplin. Above all I watched lots of silent movies. All the Douglas Fairbanks movies. I was watching for a specific kind of physicality and magnetism. So I watched all the Gene Kelly movies. Vittorio Gassman. Jean Paul Belmondo. In the end I mostly took things from Murneau films because they had a very minimalist, almost modern style of silent acting.”

So do he and Hazanavicius have an artist and muse relationship? “No. Bérénice is the muse. We have a blue tooth relationship.” The Artist wrapped in Los Angeles earlier this year after an intense 35-day shoot. The location adds a flourish of authenticity and a character of its own.

“The architecture of the 30s is everywhere,” says Dujardin. “There are still 1930s residences. We shot in Mary Pickford’s house. The downtown theatres are still Art Deco. It’s incredibly motivating. You just put your camera in place and shoot.”

The OSS 117crew’s unlikely American adventure has already paid off. The film has just been selected by most of the critical bodies on earth as the best of 2011. Last May, Dujardin received the award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I was like a kid. I just let myself get carried away by it. I loved every minute – getting dressed, going downstairs – it was all new to me. That’s not why you make films. If you were working for prizes you’d live a very unhappy life. And the part just before shooting is even better. But as a bonus it’s really nice.” Inevitably, offers have flooded in from studios but Dujardin isn’t about the cross the Atlantic just yet.

“I’m not naïve enough to think I could have a Hollywood career at my age,” says the 39-year-old. “Never say never. It goes against being an actor to have it all planned out. What I want today is going to be different from what I want tomorrow.

“Change is part of what we do. But I think I need to work in France. I don’t want to end up being the French lover or French bad guy in America. I’d rather be Douglas Fairbanks.”

The Artistopens January 6