Silence is golden
A silent movie star looks set to steal this year’s Oscars limelight, writes Kirsten Craze
THERE is a lot of noise being made in Hollywood for a certain silent film and its leading man, Jean Dujardin.
Lead actor in The Artist, Dujardin ( pictured) plays 1920s movie star George Valentin who is at his career peak when ‘‘ talkies’’ burst on to the scene.
Fortunately for the French star, who is just beginning to shine States- side, he has just one of the only two spoken lines in the international breakout film. Thankfully, because at 39 he is only now learning English.
Speaking in his native tongue from his temporary base in a Los Angeles hotel room, Dujardin seems overwhelmed by the attention and accumulating accolades which include a Palm D’OR at the Cannes Film Festival, a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy, a SAG award, an AACTA and Oscar nomination, not to mention countless gongs for the film itself.
He admits the surreal experience has given him a metaphorical sense of vertigo.
‘‘ This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime, so I’m just trying to take it all in with pleasure, but there is also a lot of exhaustion because it’s very intense,’’ Dujardin says.
Since ‘‘ talkies’’ transformed the world of cinema almost a century ago, and then colour began seeping on to the silver screen a decade later, Hollywood has dabbled with black and white as a cinematic tool, and the odd filmmaker has even tackled the silent genre with varying degrees of success.
However, this little French and American film ‘‘ that could’’ has made critics and the circus of award ceremonies really sit up and listen.
In its fictional world of Hollywood throughout the late 1920s to 1930s, The Artist tells the story of Valentin as he goes from triumphant silent film superstar, to dated has- been after he rejects what he believes to be a passing fad – the ‘‘ talkie’’.
Dujardin ( pronounced du- zhardan) says when director Michel Hazanavicius first broached the idea of ‘‘ un film muetet noir et blanc’’ on the set of their first film together, a James Bond- esque spoof called OSS 117 – Cairo, Nest
of Spies, he thought it was a little far- fetched.
‘‘ One day he said ‘ Hey, I’d like to make a silent movie’. I said, ‘ Well OK, why not?’ But I thought it was surely a fantasy – we all have fantasies. Me, I want to go to the moon!’’ he says.
‘‘ At times I didn’t think the film would see the light of day, but he took off on his own to his office to write and then he found producer Thomas Langmann to finance the film.’’
The Artist is the first partly US- funded project by writer, director and editor Hazanavicius, who is himself nominated for a best director Oscar, as is his wife and Dujardin’s co- star and love interest, Argentinian- born actress Berenice Bejo ( pictured right and with Dujardin).
‘‘ While filming we got the impression that it was something unique, something very personal and original,’’ Dujardin says, admitting that the lack of a sound guy on set brought with it a freedom which is often not experienced in film making today.
‘‘ The days were long, but we had so much fun. Each day was different and it was a new way to act; more instinctive, less intellectual, and it was very enjoyable as an actor.
‘‘ It’s different in the sense that we could play music on set, the director can speak to you directly, we could speak a bit in French, in English, in Gibberish.’’
In preparing to play Valentin, Dujardin says he took intensive tap dancing lessons and studied the stars of Hollywood’s golden era, particularly Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly.
‘‘ I didn’t want to imitate Chaplin because he’s a genius and you just can’t copy him; he’s unique. The character just started to form with the costume, the lights, the decor and everything like that. Then it just came down to simply playing the part, the situation honestly,’’ he says.
A household name for the best part of two decades, Dujardin began as a slapstick sketch comedian in the 1990s, gaining celebrity status for several silly catchphrases, but in recent years his characters have developed more meat on the figurative bone.
It is not until now, however, he has been able to sink his teeth into the global market.
‘‘ In France we have a blossoming film industry, so we don’t really need to export ourselves elsewhere. Not everyone has the Hollywood fantasy, not everyone has that dream,’’ he says, adding that some un- named US film offers have already started to come his way.
Determined not to be derailed by the recent attention focusing on just one film, Dujardin says while his life has become a whirlwind, it has not changed dramatically.
‘‘ I don’t want it to change anything. I suppose if it has changed something it has meant a little more freedom for me when it comes to my career choices,’’ he says.
‘‘ I want to remain honourable and keep doing what I love to do, and what I love doing is acting, and getting projects off the ground and acting in them. That’s all I expect.’’
His next big role will be donning a tuxedo on February 26 for the Oscars where The Artist is nominated for 10 awards.
‘‘ But I think in March I’m going to relax for a couple of weeks; turn off the mobile and disappear into the mountains where nobody can find me,’’ he says. State Cinema Village Cinemas, Feb 16 Review: