Amid the spectacle and noise of this year’s big-budget reboots, superhero franchises, and clanging robots, there’s one film standing in the wings in tux and tails, waiting for its moment to walk on stage and take a silent bow. The Artist (rated PG-13) is a French movie, in black and white, and, with the exception of a few clever auditory gags, entirely without sound, making it one of the most unlikely new movies in recent memory. The plot — about a silent-film actor (Jean Dujardin) in the late 1920s struggling to survive cinema’s transition to sound while falling for a rising starlet (Bérénice Bejo) — is a heartfelt mash note to Old Hollywood. Audiences loved it in May at Cannes, where its quiet charm generated a lot of buzz and the lead-acting award for Dujardin. Still, selling a silent movie to a 21st-century audience is a bit like trying to peddle mimeographs in an Apple store. It’s no easy task, even if you’re Harvey Weinstein.
The indie impresario snatched up the distribution rights far ahead of its Cannes premiere, and he’s devised an unusual marketing strategy. ”I’m planning to practice all religions at once,” says Weinstein. ”I’m at synagogue on Saturdays, church on Sundays, I occasionally say ‘om,’ and I’m converting to Islam. Usually when it comes to marketing I have all the right answers, but with this there’s just no precedent, so I’ll stick with getting religion.”
Getting the film off the ground was a bit of a miracle of its own. Director Michel Hazanavicius says the idea first came to him more than seven years ago, but he was met with skepticism from producers and actors alike. ”Michel said to me, ‘I would like to make a silent movie,’ ” recalls Dujardin. ”And I said, ‘That’s nice. I would like to go to the moon.’ ” After shooting two popular French OSS 117 spy-spoof movies together, Hazanavicius and Dujardin had enough clout to bring the dream to fruition. Not only that, they managed to recruit an American supporting cast that includes John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller as Dujardin’s studio head and unhappy wife, respectively. Hazanavicius also arranged to shoot in America, including on the Warner Bros. studio lot (which, coincidentally, was acquired with profits made from the very first ”talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer).
”A lot of people think that it’s strange that a French director would tell such an American story,” says Hazanavicius. ”I don’t think Hollywood is so American. Hollywood belongs to everyone, like cell-phone towers.” The international nature of The Artist also captures the spirit of early Hollywood, when foreign-born directors like F.W. Murnau and Ernst Lubitsch could thrive. Silence is, after all, a universal language.
While many people associate silent film with the iconic mummery of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, Hazanavicius wanted to pay homage to the era’s romantic melodramas. ”I said to Michel, ‘If you want me to be like Chaplin, I can’t, because he was a genius and I’m not a genius,’ ” says Dujardin. ”But then he showed me films like City Girl and The Crowd, and I understood what he wanted. I can do a love story.” Early chatter has Dujardin in the running for a Best Actor nomination, and the actor says that if he were to win, he’d give his acceptance speech silently.
But Hazanavicius insists that prizes are superfluous at this point. ”It would be great to be nominated, but it’s nice to just be in the predictions,” says the director. ”This movie really shouldn’t even have happened, so actually it’s great just to exist.”