Originally, Michel Hazanavicius admits, "The Artist" wasn't supposed to have a Hollywood happy ending. Au contraire.
When the French writer-director first conceived his black-and-white tribute to the silent film, he was influenced by the sinister stylings of German Expressionist masters including F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene. One early screenplay proposal set "The Artist" in Berlin and drew a parallel between the rise of the sound era and the Nazis' brutal ascent. It ended with its protagonist committing suicide.
"It was too dark," Hazanavicius said with what might be termed wry Gallic understatement. "And it's a matter of politeness. You can't ask people to come to see a black-and-white, silent, French movie with Nazis and suicide. It just doesn't work. "
So he relocated the film to 1930s Los Angeles. Penned a new, upbeat story. Added spiffy period clothes and cars. And, finally, coaxed two relentlessly charming performances from Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent-film star who is sabotaged by the dawning sound era, and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller, George's up-and-coming big-screen protege.
Result? "The Artist" has pleased audiences and seduced critics on both sides of the Atlantic, pocketing 10 Oscar nominations last week — including picture, director and one each for its two stars — as well as the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards, and a Golden Globe trophy for best motion picture comedy/musical, while Dujardin took home SAG and Globe lead actor trophies.
Such high-profile acclaim for a relatively low-budget film that relies almost entirely on title cards and music in lieu of spoken dialogue has made "The Artist" the season's biggest surprise hit. And few seem more surprised, albeit pleasantly, than its two stars.
"I feel like I'm water-skiing behind the movie. It's like the film is going faster than we are, and we're just following behind and trying to hold on," said Dujardin, whose rakish profile and comic charisma graced Hazanavicius' secret-agent spoofs "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" (2006) and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" (2009).
"And because we love the movie, we're not going to let go," chimed in Bejo, an Argentina native who earned her Hollywood spurs opposite the late Heath Ledger in Brian Helgeland's 2001 neo-retro Dark Ages comedy "A Knight's Tale."
Several factors may explain the movie's speedboat momentum as it cruises through the awards season. Perhaps most significant is that Hazanavicius, while shifting his film's plot and tone away from Nazi-themed Neo-Expressionism (which sounds like a parody of a Mel Brooks parody), found a way to infuse "The Artist" with both high-level artistry and crowd-pleasing escapism.
The movie captures that combination in three key scenes:
The dressing room
The first occurs when Peppy sneaks into George's studio-lot dressing room when he's not there. Spotting his jacket hanging on a clothes tree, she takes the coat's arm and drapes it around her in a fantasy caress, a charming gesture that expresses her infatuation with George as well as her own tender yearning for celluloid stardom.
Bejo said the scene evokes one of her favorite movies, Otto Preminger's 1944 noir classic, "Laura," in which the detective played by Dana Andrews senses the vivid spirit of a presumably dead woman whose apartment he has gone to inspect.
"Michel said, 'Action! Take your time. Enjoy the moment,'" recalled Bejo, who is Hazanavicius' real-life spouse. "So I just really let it go and enjoyed the moment with the suit. And I love the way she does like this, because she's not taking herself too seriously. And I think it's a very important scene for Peppy, because you really see the character, how she's romantic, not self-conscious, she has humor."
As for George, when he stumbles on Peppy in his dressing-room, "it's like he's watching a premonition," Dujardin said. "He's watching the train going by; things are going to change for him. And he accepts it because he has a lot of empathy for this woman, that she represents the future."
Another transformative sequence is George's nightmare, in which the silent universe the actor inhabits suddenly starts to make strange, alarming noises: a glass being set on a table top, a giggling group of ingenues. Like the film overall, the scene delicately blends playful whimsy with psychological insight.
The movie's near-absence of dialogue and its reliance instead on almost pure imagery and music, Hazanavicius said, allowed him to tell the story in a poetic and metaphorical, rather than literal-minded, way — to do things that he "would never dare to do in a talking movie" because they would seem too implausible or corny.
"It's kind of a promise you make to the audience at the very beginning," the director said. "And you say, 'OK, I won't use words.' So that means, the positive face of that sentence is, 'I will use images.'"
The dance number
The ultimate payoff to that approach comes in the movie's final scene, in which George and Peppy execute a glamorous tap-dance number, complete with lush orchestral accompaniment. What made the scene tricky wasn't only that the actors had to learn to tap but also that, for the sake of period authenticity, the director insisted on filming the sequence as a one-shot.
"Today you can edit, but at the time it would've been really weird," Bejo explained. "Like, you don't have Fred Astaire's head and then Fred Astaire's feet: You have Fred Astaire entirely in the shot. So Michel wanted to keep that the way it was."
For Hazanavicius, the scene is about George's ultimate triumph over his antagonist: sound. The movie's central theme, the director believes, is "how a human being reacts when he has to face a transition period."
"He has to win against sound," he said. "And the way he succeeds is music. With music, he transforms the sound into something doable for him. He makes sound with his feet."
In "The Artist," that crowning, triumphant burst of music and tapping feet releases the audience's emotions — and banishes the dark phantoms of earlier screenplay drafts. It also demonstrates, in a few fleeting frames, the sensory magic that movies can summon in the hands of the right artist.
"If you see any other films that Michel's done, some people make films — and he does cinema," Dujardin said. "That means everything: the light, the decor, the set. It's a fantasy for actors. It's a dream."