The stars of the acclaimed silent film The Artist thought their film was too French to catch on. Jason Solomons reports
Their silhouettes, struck in a classic, romantic pose, are becoming the defining image of the current film awards season. As George Valentin and Peppy Miller in The Artist, French actors Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin have been reviving the icons of the silver screen, making old Hollywood live again and, at least for the next couple of months, they are two of the hottest stars in the world.
Dujardin this week won a best actor (comedy or musical) Golden Globe and The Artist won a Golden Globe for best picture in the same category. The film is likely to figure in next week's Oscar nominations.
"Ever since the movie premiered at Cannes, I've had a sudden surge of scripts and interest," says Bejo, whose character Peppy Miller goes from flirtatious silent movie flapper to the biggest female star of the "talkie" era. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime event for all of us."
The Argentinian-born actress moved to France when she was three and is now married to The Artist's director Michel Hazanavicius. Since the film emerged as a strong favourite to become the first silent movie to win best picture at the Oscars for 80 years, the couple have had a baby, Gloria - named after Gloria Swanson who played silent movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
To prepare for The Artist Bejo studied the style of Joan Crawford and Dujardin watched Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly to tap into their characters; they would often get together to watch silent films such as F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and City Girl. The film was even shot in Mary Pickford's old house in Beverly Hills, using the bed in which she and Douglas Fairbanks slept.
Berenice and Jean first met in 2005, filming the French comedy OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a Bond spoof with elements of Austin Powers. Directed by Hazanavicius, the film, and its follow-up OSS 117: Lost in Rio, established Dujardin in France but the way The Artist has broken out to enchant audiences around the world is a shock.
"This is a universal, unique movie, it has potential to cross barriers," says Dujardin, "but we never thought about that on set. We knew that in making a silent movie, we were doing something a little bit under the wire. It's a pastiche, but more suited to the French taste, you would have thought."
Having shot the film in Los Angeles, the pair have become incredibly close, the sort of couple who can now finish each other's sentences. At moments during the interview, they bicker at each other in French. "I always had to let Jean have his time with my husband Michel," teases Bejo. "He's like his second wife and gets very jealous."
"I think I'm more demanding than any wife," laughs Dujardin. "But making the film, it was all three of us finding our own way with a genre we had never worked in before. It's a film a trois - or a quatre, if you count Uggie the dog."
Who: Berenice Bejo and Jean Dujardin
What: The Artist
When: Opens at cinemas February