And certainly nobody expected its star, Jean Dujardin, not only to become famous overnight as the French George Clooney, but to actually beat the real George Clooney in the best actor category at the recent US Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards.
The Artist, set in 1927, is one of the most charming, original and tender movies in quite a while, and has made an international star of its main character, the fictional silent movie god George Valentin, played with limitless Gallic charm by Dujardin.
Debonair in his top hat and pencil moustache, handsomely complementing his luminous co-star Bérénice Bejo, Dujardin seems a classic movie star from a bygone era — dapper, elegant and the opposite of the stubble-faced dumb-asses of modern Hollywood. Even his eyebrow deserves an Oscar for best support role.
If The Artist wins best film at the awards later this month, this would be an extraordinary coup, given that it is almost entirely silent, and filmed in black and white.
“My instincts led me to turn down the film at one point,” says Dujardin. “Such a good choice, no? But in the end I decided to trust my friend and director, Michel [Hazanavicius], who wrote the part of George with me in mind. He understood exactly what he had to do to make this film come alive in the minds of audiences.”
Dujardin, who spent months learning to tap dance for the role, had to immerse himself in the lost art of silent acting where, in the absence of words, the face and body are everything. It was not an easy job.
“It was such a difficult challenge that I hesitated about taking the role,” Dujardin explains. “I first said yes, then I said no, then I decided to place my trust in the director, after all, he went to art school. My main worry was not doing something like Charlie Chaplin. I had to find my own approach and so I plunged into watching the great silent films and actors.
“Douglas Fairbanks gave me a model for George [his character in The Artist] and watching many King Vidor and Murnau films gave me a marvellous feel for the kind of storytelling that is possible in a silent film. My friends still worried about the project but in the end I decided to allow myself to fall in love with the process and it’s been a beautiful journey since.
“It was unexplored territory for me, even though I have admired many actors who work visually, like Peter Sellers, for example, who did such a brilliant job in The Party, which is in many ways a silent film, except there is dialogue in it. But so much of that film is purely visual and what he does with his face and his gestures. The danger in approaching this role was to limit one’s tendency to want to overemote to correct for the absence of speech. I didn’t want to become a caricature, to go over the top with my expressions. I wanted to rely more on my body language than obvious facial gestures. That was the big challenge for me.”
Dujardin is now on the verge of an unprecedented grand slam of acting prizes. Last May, when The Artist opened the Cannes Film Festival, Dujardin was given the Palme D’Or for best actor. Since then there has been a Golden Globe and a SAG award, both for best actor, and he is also up for a BAFTA tomorrow, a Cesar (the French equivalent of an Academy Award), as well as an Oscar. So overwhelming is the prospect of winning the biggie — the Oscar — that when a reporter suggested it might happen, Dujardin began singing the Marseillaise to drown him out. He is a funny, charming and entirely modest individual.
“This is a very good time for me but I am also acutely aware that this kind of attention will probably disappear very quickly,” he says. “But for the moment I would be a fool to deny it. So I am making the most of it and trying to remain calm.”
The film was shot on the famous Warner Bros studio lot, its significance not lost on Dujardin. “It was like being a tourist and an actor at the same time,” he says. “I explored every corner of the studio lot. I rarely stayed in my trailer while we were shooting because I loved being on the set and on the lot all the time.
“It was great motivation for me and for Bérénice to be part of this immense part of film history. I was living in a villa high up in the Hollywood Hills which resembled the house in Sunset Boulevard. All this was incredibly stimulating and intoxicating and while we were shooting and for a few months afterwards it was impossible for me to shake off the character. It was such a memorable and important part of my life.”
Despite looking the part, Dujardin is neither Hollywood nor old school. He is 39, from Paris, and doesn’t speak much English, which means he has to have an interpreter at interviews with foreign press. Despite his non-speaking role in The Artist — ironically about an old style film star’s reluctance to engage with the phenomenon of ‘talkies’ — English-speaking audiences are falling madly in love with the suave Frenchman. Not just because he is good looking, but because he radiates an irresistible twinkliness. In France, however, he is famous as a comedian.
Dujardin says the hardest part of his Artist role was the dancing: “I spent five months training to tap dance and that was very draining because I am not a natural dancer. But I began to enjoy it and the physical training helped me block out a lot of fears and apprehensions about the actual interpretation.”
Dujardin was already well known in France when The Artist opened. Now he is the country’s biggest star, but even as Hollywood calls, he has never expressed interest in moving into the superleague; in an interview with London’s Time Out magazine around the time The Artist was being released, he shrugged when asked about the lure of greater fame and riches in Hollywood. “I’m not sure I’m megalomaniac enough for all that,” he said.
Being the youngest of four brothers may have helped keep his ego in check.
“I wasn’t bullied by my brothers or anything like that. But I was the little brother who was always wearing his older brothers’ old shirts and pants. You don’t make any fuss, you go about your studies and don’t steal the neighbour’s car or torture the cat,” he laughs. “The one advantage of having so many brothers is that they help educate you can get you ready to face the world. So you grow up a bit faster.”
Before working as an actor, Dujardin was a locksmith, and did cabaret standup in his spare time. In the late 1990s he developed a following for his self-deprecating send-ups of the French Joe Average, with all his everyday vanities and insecurities.
Self-mockery is not something you would hugely associate with French culture, but Dujardin’s puncturing of the French male self-image made him something of a national hero. Women loved him for it.
This cabaret led to a role, from 1999 to 2003, in one of France’s most successful television sketch shows, Un Gars Et Une Fille (A Guy and a Girl), which comprised of short skits around a hideous French couple nicknamed Loulou and Chouchou, who are consistently horrible to each other. His co-star on the show, Alexandra Lamy, ended up becoming his wife in 2009.
Dujardin moved to the French big screen in 2005 when he starred in Brice de Nice, another send up, this time of a surfer dude stereotype with very bad hair and clothes. The film was a huge hit, reinforcing Dujardin’s position as the funniest man in France; teenagers even began aping his catchphrases. The spoof movies OSS 117 came next, directed by Hazanavicius. Again, they were a huge hit — a sort of Gallic Austin Powers, except the spy was played by a comic actor who also happened to be young, French and hot.
“It’s been a whirlwind process,” he says of his rise to international fame. “I’m so happy for the film and that the director and Bérénice are getting so much attention, too. I’ve gone through this experience in France and in Paris where I live so I understand the nature of celebrity. I’ve seen my films applauded and also derided and my work has received mixed responses in the French press over the years. A certain segment of critics are very dismissive of the spoof films that Michel and I have done. So I don’t let reviews influence my self-image or ego. Your head can play games with you if you get too caught up in the success or failure of your films.
“If you have a beautiful life, no one can ever take that away from you. When it comes to fame, it can disappear like that. So I prefer to invest in my life rather than in my image. The odds are better.”
His next project will be with Vincent Cassel, in a remake of Claude Berri’s 1977 comedy Un Moment d’Egarement (One Wild Moment, remade by Hollywood in 1984 as Blame It On Rio with Michael Caine and Demi Moore).
“I grew up fascinated by the great actors of the 1970s and ’80s,” he says. “Men like Vittorio Gassman, Gérard Lanvin, Bernard Giraudeau, Lino Ventura. That’s why I was very saddened by the death last year of Giraudeau. When I was 14, he was my hero and I would have loved to have met him and worked with him.”
At school, he was not competitive, and did not enjoy the school experience, despite having a happy childhood overall. “I was happier when I was home as opposed to at school where I was generally very unhappy and felt as if I was there on probation. I didn’t like the sense of competition you have at school where it doesn’t seem like education is the real motivation. It was more about advancement at the expense of your school buddies.”
At the forthcoming Oscars, he will be in competition against some very big names, but he remains firmly grounded and appreciative of what he already has.
“I try to take each day and each film as it comes. I like to watch my wife make coffee in the morning. I like to take long walks in Paris. I like to spend time with my two sons, Simon  and Jules . Those are the simple pleasures of life which make me happy.”
Dujardin’s appeal is that he is funny. “I’m a happy person and I think that translates well into comedy,” he says. “I know that there is the myth that most comedians deep down are miserable or angry. But I am not that way and many of the great French comic actors who are my friends are ridiculously happy and pleasant individuals.
“I also think I have a face where I can distort my expression and make people laugh more easily than others, perhaps. It’s difficult to know why you have certain gifts and not others. But I enjoy life and I enjoy making other people happy in everyday life and I imagine that audiences see that in my performances.”
Such is his lack of understanding of English that his promotional appearances in the US for The Artist have become viral internet hits for their unintentional hilarity; in France, he is adored because he does not take himself at all seriously. But his dashing, old-style looks, and the fact that he has been nominated for an Oscar, mean he is no longer just a local hero.
Already there have been efforts to transform him into celebrity magazine fodder, particularly when his private life spilled into the public eye when he left his partner and mother of his two sons for Alexandra Lamy. French magazines dubbed the couple the French Brangelina. He is not, however, hounded for his fame — at least not in France anyway.
“I enjoy watching the people smile at me as I walk down the street or I go into a shop,” he says. “People have been very generous and polite with me and I always try to sign autographs even if sometimes you might be tired and are thinking about where you have to be and you’re late and this or that. But it is my belief and experience that you feel very badly when you don’t sign an autograph or stop to take a few minutes to express your gratitude that people appreciate your work. What is more beautiful than the pure exchange of recognition between an artist and his public?”
He has also been called “the new Jean Paul Belmondo”, after the famed actor of the French New Wave who could turn his hand both to comedy and to serious acting. But he cringes at comparisons with George Clooney. “It’s a joke,” he says. “I’m a French actor who’s just arrived here [in Hollywood]. It’s very nice, but it’s very hard for me to hear such things.”
Yet Dujardin has already won a Golden Globe for best comedy actor in 2012, pipping people like Ryan Gosling and Owen Wilson. With his pared down, deceptively simple portrayal of the flawed but delightful George Valentin, he and his expressive eyebrow may yet win the biggest award of the lot.