Although it started out weakly, 2011 turned out to be a strong year for world-class filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, Pedro Almodovar, Martin Scorsese, Michel Hazanaviciusv -- wait, who?
The French writer-director, previously best known for directing a pair of James Bond spoofs, may not have been widely known in the United States as recently as a few months ago. But a slew of critics' groups have rewarded his film "The Artist" with accolades, and the movie racked up six Golden Globes nominations last week.
And now "The Artist," which opens Friday in some markets, is the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar -- and let's be honest, it looks pretty much unstoppable.
Who would have guessed that a silent movie, shot in black and white and starring two actors popular in France but not outside that country, would have found such an appreciative audience around the world? Certainly not Hazanavicius, who admits he conceived of the movie primarily as an exercise in craft and technique.
"My initial motivation was really to see if I could tell a story using this format," he says. "I have always loved the experience of watching silent movies and the way they work on the audience. I thought making a silent movie would be a perfect way to speak about silent movies. But I didn't have the story in mind at the time. That all came later."
Before he began writing the script for "The Artist," Hazanavicius gorged on silent movies, ones he already loved and others he had never seen. And although Hazanavicius recognizes there are classics of the period of the genre from every country around the world (including Dziga Vertovv's "The Man with a Camera," from Russia, or Fritz Lang's seminal "Metropolis," from Germany), he eventually settled on Hollywood films, specifically the ones made during the years just before filmmakers adopted sound.
"The American movies were my favorites," Hazanavicius says. "I love King Vidor's 'The Crowd' from 1928; John Ford's 'Four Sons' is incredible. One of my favorites is 'The Unknown' by Tod Browning, who made 'Freaks.' Lon Chaney plays a circus knife thrower who doesn't have arms! He throws knives with his feet! 'Underworld' was the first gangster movie ever made. All of 'Scarface' is in that movie, including all that stuff about 'The World Is Yours.' It was like 'Pulp Fiction' for people in 1927."
For his movie, Hazanavicius settled on the story of George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), a superstar of silent movies whose fame starts to dwindle when the talkies take over. At the same time, the career of a chorus dancer named Peppy (Berenice Bejo) takes off, pushing Valentin's name off movie theater marquees.
"The Artist" is stuffed with odes to classic movies such as "Citizen Kane," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Singin' in the Rain," but the film also stands alone as a thoroughly enchanting comedy told almost entirely in the manner of pictures from 1927: Emotive acting, title cards, an expressive musical score, an adherence to the rules of the Hays Code (the Hollywood censor of the time) and no sound effects or dialogue -- well, almost none.
Although the movie's $12 million budget was raised through French financiers, Hazanavicius stops short of describing "The Artist" as a French picture.
"This movie has no nationality," he says. "And if it had to have one, I am not sure it would be French. I wanted to tell an American story; we shot it in America; the cast and crew were 90 percent American, and even the French actors play American characters. Being French is not my first thing I would say to define myself. It is a coincidence that I am French. I didn't choose to be French. I am not especially proud of being French! I think of myself as a filmmaker and a father and a man who loves his wife before I think of myself as a Frenchman. And when I am on the set, I am a director. No one cares that you are French. The only difference is that my English may not be as good."
Hazanavicius shot "The Artist" in the square 1:33 screen format of silent films. But he resisted the temptation to use computers to artificially age the image or duplicate the herky-jerky speed of movies from that era (the result of the different frame-rate cameras used then). Instead of a fake 1920s picture, "The Artist" looks sumptuous and decidedly modern, with judicious use of sound effects at specific moments and a gorgeous pallette of luminous grays the director achieved by shooting the movie on color film and then transferring it to black and white.
Hazanavicius also surrounded his two stars with famous American actors, including John Goodman as a studio mogul ("when he smiles, it is so huge that he looks like a giant baby," the director says) and James Cromwell as Valentin's faithful assistant ("you can sense his dignity and love just by looking at him").
"The key to casting was to use expressive actors," he says. "With some actors, you can't really read their faces. Steve McQueen had a really strong body language, but he was also poker-faced. It wouldn't be easy to make a silent movie with him."
For the actors, "The Artist" was an opportunity to try on a sort of performance modern films simply don't provide.
"I approached my character the same way I approach characters in talking movies," says Bejo, who was born in Argentina and is married to Hazanavicius. "The biggest difference is that you have so much freedom on the set, because you don't have to remember any dialogue. You can really have fun with your arms and your face and your body language and completely forget about your voice. Michel would play music on the set to establish the mood of the scenes, and he was able to give us directions while we were shooting, something you can't do in other movies."
Even though Hazanavicius says the script of "The Artist" was careful and precise, he made some chance discoveries during the production of the film, including the wonderful joke in the last minute, one of the most enchanting moments in any film this year.
"I was initially going to change that scene, because I didn't want the entire movie to feel like one long build-up to a joke," Hazanavicius said. "At first I thought it reduced the movie. So there are actually two versions of that scene. But I finally decided to keep this one, because more important than anything, I really wanted to make a charming movie. And there is a lot of charm in that shot."