Michel Hazanavicius triumphs beyond homage with The Artist
Likewise the lightest touch was required with the actors, who worried about replicating the silent era's performances and were tasked with conveying everything with the briefest flicker of emotion dancing across the face, or body language (which Béjo memorably plays with in a scene when she mimes an embrace with her would-be heartthrob's jacket). "I know it was stressful for the actors in the beginning because they wanted to know if I asked for something very special, but I didn't," says the director. "They don't play silent, really — they play '20s, and I think it's different. We think [silent film players] overact not because the movies are silent but because the codes of the '20s are very different from the codes of acting today.
"So what I said to [Dujardin] was very simple: 'Don't be upset with the silent thing,'" Hazanavicius continues. "'You don't have anything special to do. You have to do what you usually do — you come with your face, your body, your smile, your charm, and you embody the character, and you respect the situation, and everything will be fine.'" Also fueling the feel was the fact that The Artist was shot at 22 frames a second, rather than the standard 24. "It gave us a very small acceleration in the gesture so the way they move is a little bit too fast, so that gives a flavor of the '20s," adds the filmmaker.
For Hazanavicius, the draw to make a silent was multipronged. "I wanted to share my experience as an audience member because I love the way the story is told to you in a silent movie," he says. "There's a lot of room for you. You can make your own movie. You participate in the storytelling process. I really like it because you're very close to the story — it's your voices, your dialogue, your sound design — you're part of the process, so I really love that."
Another enticement was the formal challenge of not only assembling the narrative about early film stars, which incidentally echoes that of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, but shooting in a silent style, playing with era's visual codes. To that end, Hazanavicius and leading lady (and romantic partner) Béjo did enormous amounts of research, poring through the period's films and actors and directors' biographies. "I hope my future movies will be better thanks to this one," says the director.
"When I wrote the script, I sent it to the script supervisor, and she said to me, 'You really want to, I don't know how to say, show off!'" he remembers. "'You really want to be remarked [upon].' I said, 'Yes!' I think we all want to be remarked [upon]. I don't want to make a discreet movie that nobody wants to see."
Sounds like the words of a real artist.
THE ARTIST opens Fri/2 in San Francisco.