The Artist - When silence is golden

By David Germain

David Germain talks to Michel Hazanavicius, the man behind black-and-white sensation The Artist, about the courage required to revive the past.

Shot in Los Angeles, 'The Artist' grandly recreates old Hollywood and beautifully weaves from comedy to melodrama; lively action to clever dance numbers. Photo / Supplied
Shot in Los Angeles, 'The Artist' grandly recreates old Hollywood and beautifully weaves from comedy to melodrama; lively action to clever dance numbers. Photo / Supplied

In an age of widescreen 3D, rainbow-coloured, star-driven spectacles, how do you sell a black-and-white film shot in a 2D boxy format, with no A-listers and barely a word of spoken dialogue?

There's only one answer: make people love it so much they do the selling for you, talking it up as one of the freshest, cleverest and sweetest nights out at the movies they've had in a while.

A throwback to the silent-film era, The Artist has been winning over audiences since premiering at last May's Cannes Film Festival.

Last month the film picked up 10 Academy Award nominations, including nods for best picture, director, best actor, supporting actress and screenplay.

Along with his directing nod, French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius was nominated for original screenplay, while the film's other nominations include musical score, cinematography and costume design.

A couple of years ago, Hazanavicius felt utterly alone in thinking that a silent movie might have a place in today's digital cinema era.

"It's something I had in mind for a long, long time, but it's very hard to find the money," Hazanavicius said at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where The Artist also played.

"It was like a fantasy. Oh, my dream would be to produce a silent movie. And people would say, 'yeah, yeah, but in real life, what do you want to do?"'

Then came Hazanavicius' two OSS 117 spy spoofs, both hits in France. With fresh box-office clout, he pitched his silent movie idea to producer Thomas Langmann.

"Everybody thought I was crazy, and then I found someone more crazy than I was," Hazanavicius said. "He said, 'okay, let's do it'."

Hazanavicius recruited French star Jean Dujardin, his OSS 117 leading man, for the title role of The Artist, 1920s Hollywood silent-film sensation George Valentin, whose fortunes abruptly slide as the sound era takes over.

As George tumbles from the top to the bottom, rising talkies star Peppy Miller (Hazanavicius' wife, Berenice Bejo), becomes a guardian angel trying to look out for her former idol.

Shot in Los Angeles, The Artist grandly recreates old Hollywood and beautifully weaves from comedy to melodrama; lively action to clever dance numbers.

Almost all of the scant dialogue is told the old-fashioned way - through title cards - but The Artist is far from silent. The film features a gorgeous, jazzy musical score and brilliant sound effects that pop from the speakers during otherwise hushed sequences.

Though Dujardin and Bejo are relatively unknown, the supporting cast includes such Hollywood regulars as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell and Penelope Ann Miller. The film also co-stars a scene-stealing canine, Uggie, a jack russell terrier who is George's constant companion and co-star in his big-screen silent adventures.

The Artist picked up Harvey and Bob Weinstein as executive producers, whose Weinstein Co is distributing the film in America and aiming to do what the brothers do best - attract Oscar attention that can make a mainstream hit out of an art house film.

"Marketing is strictly word of mouth. It's almost impossible to market, but I do think that everyone who sees it falls in love with it," said Erik Lomis, head of distribution for Weinstein.

"I think it's a picture that can play everywhere, and I think it will play everywhere. It's just going to take some time to gestate in the market place."

The film was a hit in France, where it opened in October.

Charles Chaplin continued making silent films into the 1930s, and other filmmakers have occasionally tried it, notably Mel Brooks with his 1976 comedy Silent Movie. But a feature-length silent film has not competed for best picture since the late 1920s, when Wings and Sunrise took the top honours at the very first Oscars and the acting prizes went to performers in silent films, Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor.

Dujardin won the best actor prize at Cannes for The Artist, a role that allowed him to emulate some of his early film heroes.

"There were lots of influences I took from, for example, Gene Kelly or someone like Douglas Fairbanks," Dujardin said.

"Also, what I have to offer is very instinctual. I just let it go. ...

"Almost a fantasy, like imagining how would I be if I was kind of a big star, a little infatuated with myself at the end of the 20s, who's kind of extremely enthusiastic and at the same time happy. At the same time, a little naive. There's also a slight schizophrenic side to him."

Hazanavicius hopes audiences come out for his quaint little silent film, but it's now up to fans to do the talking and persuade other people to turn up.

"It's not really my problem. I made the movie I wanted to see, and now I've seen it and I'm happy with it. If people want to come, they will come. If they won't, I can't go in the house of everybody and say, 'you, go to see a black-and-white silent movie!' I'm not Stalin. It's a free country," Hazanavicius said.

"I'm sure that people are scared. But they have to trust themselves and they will enjoy it, if they come."

LOWDOWN

What: The Artist, silent film and Oscar contender
When: Opens at cinemas today

- TimeOut / AAP

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