'The Artist': Going to the dogs, in a good way
Ever since Jean Dujardin won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival, accolades for "The Artist" have been pouring in. And many critics think that the little black-and-white silent movie an oddity in the days of 3-D blockbusters will get an Oscar nomination for best picture.
Speaking by telephone from Rome, French director Michel Hazanavicius says he has been caught up in a whirlwind of interviews and other publicity efforts surrounding "The Artist," which opens in Austin on Friday. He's eager to answer the usual questions about why and how he made a silent film. But there's one unexpected topic that keeps coming up:
Specifically, Uggie, the 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier who follows the silent film star George Valentin (Dujardin) at the center of "The Artist" and steals many a scene.
"When I was making the movie, I didn't realize how important the dog was going to be," says the director. "But when I screened the movie, the character of the dog became really important and everyone was talking about it."
Hazanavicius says he thinks he knows why.
"The central character, George, is selfish, egocentric, proud and mean to his wife. ... He even has a huge portrait of himself hanging in his home. But he has a dog, and the dog loves him. You trust the dog. It's a collective unconscious. If the dog loves him, he must be lovable, and that's very important. And the dog stays with George throughout the movie, through the ups and downs."
Uggie's ubiquity in "The Artist" has led many a critic to suggest that Hazanavicius is paying homage to "The Thin Man," starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta, the dog.
But the director says he hadn't seen the 1934 comedy when he was writing the screenplay for "The Artist."
"I based the dog on French movies," he says. And even though France is known for its dog-obsessed culture, Hazanavicius says he's not an especially big dog lover.
"I just thought putting a dog in the movie was a cool thing to do, changing the profile of the main character and giving the movie a flavor of the 1920s."
He also says he's happily perplexed — and fortunate — that the dog has gained a following. Uggie even won the Palm Dog at the Cannes Film Festival in May — an award bestowed upon a dog each year by international critics, who have playfully named the honor after the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or.
Hazanavicius chuckles at the acclaim.
"The dog is not an actor, you know. He just wants sausages."
Hazanavicius is referring to the many sausages stuffed into Dujardin's socks and pockets to keep Uggie's attention.
Keeping Uggie happy, however, was the least of the director's problems.
First, there was the notion of making a black-and-white silent film amid a special-effects crazed culture. "Many people just thought it couldn't or shouldn't be done," Hazanavicius says. "It was very difficult to find money to make a silent movie. \u2026 But I was really sincere about trying to use the format" to pay homage to Hollywood.
"The Hollywood approach to movies finally won" the cultural battle, he says of the 1920s, the period in which "The Artist" is set, just before the arrival of the so-called "talkies."
"American silent movies really took care of the story and the characters," he says, while European movies "debated the music and architecture of cinema."
The American focus on individuals "really created what became cinema in the end," he says. "It was always about stories of how people exist in the world."
So Hazanavicius says he tried to "focus on the script and make it very simple. It's very complicated to make something that's really simple and have a real story with characters that you care about."
While writing, the director says, he turned to many movies from the past. The most obvious reference is to 1937's "A Star Is Born," tracking the rise of a young woman who's in love with a star whose career is fading.
With "The Artist," the young woman is Peppy, played by Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius' real-life partner. And the declining love interest is George, a silent star who's unable to adapt to the rise of the talkies.
Hazanavicius includes lots of other references to classic movies, as well.
As George's marriage to Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) begins to disintegrate, for instance, we see the couple seated at opposite ends of a dinner table, with the distance between them seeming to grow — just as it did in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane."
Hazanavicius says he loves it when critics refer to such scenes as "references."
"That's a nice way to say that I stole the idea," he says. "But I have no problem in stealing from a masterpiece. I really love the feeling that when you're looking at a movie, you begin to feel that you might be watching something with classical touches."
The same feeling occurs during an extended scene showing a down-on-his-luck George wandering the streets of Hollywood. He stands in front of a display window and stares at a tuxedo that he has pawned, and a haunting musical score plays.
Attentive movie lovers will recognize it as the love theme from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
"It's very simple, sensual, beautiful and beguiling," Hazanavicius says. "And it reinforces the notion that the character is haunted, just as it does in 'Vertigo.' "
All of these references were key to making "The Artist," he says. "You have 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'A Star Is Born.' And if you know classical Hollywood, the references are fun. It's part of the movie, I think. The painter responds to another painter from another century. The musician does the same. The classical movies do the same."
Hazanavicius, however, says he had no idea that "The Artist" would be embraced by audiences.
"It's such a strange world," he says, referring to the movie's first screening in Cannes in May. "You know Cannes. Outside of the festival, it's just for old, rich people. But during the festival, it's like a crazy whirlpool."
Festival organizers scheduled the first press screening for "The Artist" during the early-morning hours, when lots of critics were trying to wake up after staying up for late-night parties.
But most critics sensed that "The Artist" would be worth losing a few hours' sleep, and the gigantic Lumiere theater was packed with press.
"The publicists called us at 9 o'clock in the morning, very early in the screening, and said, 'They love it!' And then the buzz started. Everything goes so fast in Cannes, and we all knew that the screening was a success before the end."
Then, the festival held the first public screening, with the director and cast in attendance, later in the day. "That was crazy," Hazanavicius says. "They loved the movie, and when it was over the crowd applauded for 12 minutes. It seemed like two years to me. I was really happy," he says. "All of us were so alone when we started making the movie, and it was such a relief that people appreciated it."
Much more appreciation is probably on its way, come Oscar time.
It could be an historic evening, with a director walking the red carpet, sausages in his pockets and a terrier in tow.