French film director Michel Hazanavicius describes wanting to make a silent, black-and-white movie in the age of Avatar as like being “at the wheel of a 2CV with Formula One cars roaring all around me.”
But far from being a clapped-out banger, the 44-year-old’s latest movie, The Artist, about a 1920s silent film star terrified by the advent of the “talkies”, is now being talked up as a leading Oscar contender: its many prizes include the New York Film Critics Circle award for best director and best picture, and a best actor prize for Jean Dujardin at the Cannes Film Festival. With its UK release imminent, it has also begun to reawaken interest in the long-defunct silent movie genre and what it can offer modern audiences.
The $12m French-made film, which was shot entirely in Hollywood using historic locations such as Mary Pickford’s former mansion, is a crowd-pleaser with a touching love story, dynamic dance routines and a play-dead dog called Uggie.
Hazanavicius says: “It’s a counter-example of the kind of movies being made at the moment and I know that’s one of the things that people appreciate about it.”
His film is not the only contemporary silent movie currently doing the rounds. Dan Pritzker’s black-and-white Louis, a fictional retelling of Louis Armstrong’s early childhood years, received its European premiere at the London Jazz Festival last month with a live score by Wynton Marsalis, while Vlad Kozlov’s Silent Life – a half colour, half black-and-white biopic about screen star Rudolph Valentino – is seeking US distribution.
The silent era is also a key element in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s eye-popping 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which features a stand-out performance by Ben Kingsley as France’s original “cine-magician”, Georges Méliès.
“There are striking similarities between The Artist and Hugo,” says Serge Bromberg, a French film restoration expert and documentary maker. “Just as the character of George Valentin [Dujardin] refuses to embrace the advent of the ‘talkies’, so Méliès went bankrupt in 1913 because nobody wanted to see his imaginative style of films any more.”
The timing of Hugo’s release could not be better for Bromberg, whose latest documentary, The Extraordinary Voyage (released in France on December 14), charts the painstaking 10-year process it took to restore the only existing colour version of Méliès’ pioneering classic A Trip to the Moon (1902). In Hugo Scorsese uses several clips of the restored film to portray Méliès’ belated critical rehabilitation after years in which poverty forced him to sell toys at the Montparnasse train station in Paris.
“I’m absolutely convinced a lot of young film students will be inspired by the success of The Artist and Hugo,” says Bromberg. “They could decide to make their own silent films or simply dig out masterpieces by the likes of Chaplin and Murnau.”
Hazanavicius first began “fantasising” about making a silent movie about eight years ago. As a child he had accompanied his grandfather on weekly visits to the Max Linder Cinema in Paris, where he discovered the silent classics from the 1920s and became fascinated by the form.
“At the outset nobody was interested in the film and thought it was a very bad idea,” Hazanavicius says. “Whether it was producers or friends, all of them asked me why. That’s when I began to feel that telling the story of a silent film actor would make it easier for audiences to accept a silent movie because the subject and form are in direct correlation.”
Hazanavicius’ luck changed when he met the French film producer Thomas Langmann, the son of the late Claude Berri, whose own producing acumen led to the nickname “the last nabob”.
“Langmann believed in the project from the beginning,” Hazanavicius says. “He was mad enough to put his own money in – which makes him more than a producer, more like some Florentine prince.”
As soon as Hazanavicius received Langmann’s green light, in 2009, he began to dedicate himself to mastering a lost art. “I watched a huge number of silent movies while I was writing my screenplay because the rules are not the same as for talking movies,” he says. “The silent movie is an emotional cinema, it’s sensory; the fact that you don’t go through a text brings you back to a basic way of telling a story predicated on the feelings you have created.”
In The Artist old movies are subtly referenced to make something new and ethereal. There are shades of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), FW Murnau’s City Girl (1930), Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) and the silent movies of Frank Borzage, but Hazanavicius’ avowed cinephilia never becomes oppressive.
“I don’t make films to reproduce reality,” he says. “What I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is, a show.”
He believes that by their nature silent movies involve audiences more than talking movies ever can. “The fact that there is no dialogue means people have to use their imagination to create their own soundtrack. They can add their own impressions by imagining things like the texture of different voices or the sounds of an American city in the 1920s. It becomes something much more personal.”
Hazanavicius’ deep respect for silent movies informed the kind of film he wanted to make. Although his previous credits include directing two joyful James Bond parodies – the OSS 117 films – he rejected the idea of a pastiche (the approach Mel Brooks chose with his 1976 film Silent Movie) and focused instead on creating a melodrama with dabs of comedy.
“With silent films you’re better off avoiding irony, because the spectator is your accomplice,” he says. “It’s this pact that leads to emotion being created.”
But The Artist is by no means the work of a Luddite. “I’m fascinated by the art form of silent movies but I’m not nostalgic,” he says. “If I was, then that would suggest I was dealing in an outmoded art form, which I don’t believe to be the case. It’s just that it hasn’t been exploited for a long time.”
Dispensing with traditional silent movie techniques of trompe-l’oeil, such as matte paintings (painted backgrounds to superimpose images on to) or the Schüfftan process (in which mirrors were used to place actors inside miniature sets), he instead embraced computer-generated imagery. In The Artist CGI is used to extend some of the buildings and clean up modern signs of life in some scenes; it is also used to recreate what was then the famous “Hollywoodland” sign. Some of the scenes between Uggie the dog and Dujardin were also enhanced by CGI. The lighting in the film is slicker than in traditional silent movies, no doubt because it was shot in 35mm and then transferred to digital in postproduction. Meanwhile, Ludovic Bource’s buoyant musical score is faultlessly rendered.
“A lot of technology employed to make The Artist did not exist in the 1920s, which gives it a kind of plastic perfection that was not attainable before,” says Bromberg.
Although Hazanavicius does not envisage making another silent movie for the moment, he does not rule it out in the future: “I’d have to find another idea that was appropriate, because it requires a lot of sincerity. I wouldn’t do another just because this one worked well and I wanted to be noticed again.”
‘The Artist’ is released in the UK on December 30