“The best directors of the classical Hollywood era almost all come from silent film,” says writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. “I wanted to do a silent movie to see if I could tell a story with only images. It’s the purest way.” Mission accomplished: Hazanavicius’ new film, The Artist, is both thoroughly anachronistic and entirely captivating, a love letter to the sunset of Tinseltown’s silent years. Set between 1927 and 1932, the film follows the exploits of two fictional screen stars: George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dashing Douglas Fairbanks type, whose career goes south when the talkies arrive, and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an indefatigable extra who steals the limelight with the help of a Dietrichesque wink and penciled-in beauty mark on her upper lip. And while that story might sound about as fresh as a log line on Turner Classic Movies, the film is one of the most surprising of the season. Hazanavicius’ contrarian tale of romance is presented in black-and-white and, save for its swelling classical score and a few spoken lines at the end, is completely silent. “People who don’t watch silent movies think it’s an intellectual experience,” he says. “But it’s the opposite. It’s very sensual.”
Hazanavicius wrote the two principal characters with his players in mind. The three are close: Hazanavicius and Bejo are married, and the trio had collaborated on earlier projects, including the 2006 secret-agent send-up OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. “We have a Bluetooth relationship,” says Dujardin of the director. “Michel has an idea, and I’ll deliver it on set, on demand.” A slew of Hollywood regulars appears in supporting roles—Penelope Ann Miller plays George’s shrewish wife; John Goodman a perfectly apoplectic studio boss. And early reception has been positive: The film was a contender for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, where Dujardin took home Best Actor honors. The trio chalks up the film’s initial success to what some might consider its biggest drawback: the lack of dialogue. As Bejo notes, a little imagination goes a long way. “The audience feels smart because they do a lot of work,” she says. “They think, ‘Why is it silent? I’m not going to understand. It’s too hard for me.’ And then it’s so easy that people feel really good. They’re like, ‘I got it!’ ”
Photo: Bérénice Bejo, Jean Dujardin, and Michel Hazanavicius in New York, October 2011. Top to bottom: on Michel Hazanavicius: Tuxedo: Prada. Shirt: Tom Ford. Glasses: Artist’s Own. Pocket Square: Gucci. Cummerbund: Burberry Prorsum. Cuff Links: David Yurman. On Bérénice Bejo: Dress and Shoes: Gucci. Bracelets: Janis by Janis Savitt. on Jean Dujardin: Tuxedo: Gucci. Shirt, Bow Tie, And Cummerbund: Tom Ford. Styling: Bill Mullen/Art+Commerce. Hair: Holli Smith/Community NYC. Makeup: Francelle for Nars Cosmetics. Manicure: Kelly B for Chanel/de Facto Inc. Prop Stylist: Lou Asaro/Marek & Associates. Special Thanks: Pier 59 Studios.