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'The Artist': From French risk to Hollywood juggernaut

High on its trio of Golden Globe awards, “The Artist” looks more than ever like an Oscar favourite. takes a closer look at how a black-and-white, silent French film charmed Hollywood into submission.


In 2008, French actress Marion Cotillard basked in the US film industry spotlight, and eventually Oscar glory, for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”.

Four years later, Tinseltown has rekindled its love affair with France.

On Sunday night, director Michel Hazanavicius’s silent black-and-white French movie “The Artist” took home a trio of coveted Golden Globe statuettes: best musical or comedy, best actor for star Jean Dujardin, and best musical score. Now the film coasts into Oscar season on a wave of momentum and good will, and could become the first fully French production to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

The success of "The Artist" in the US is the tale of how a risk-taking French producer and director, a beloved French comedian, a smashingly well-trained Jack Russell, and a Hollywood mogul known for his aggressive awards-season campaigns won over viewers hungry for something different.

It is also an illustration of what it takes for a foreign film to conquer a market-driven, celebrity-obsessed US movie industry that has generally proven hostile to works from abroad.

Taking a risk on a bygone genre

When French producer Thomas Langmann agreed to help Hazanavicius (known in France for the blockbuster “OSS” spy spoofs) finance his project about a silent movie actor whose star fades with the rise of talkies, the two agreed it was a chancy endeavor. Though the story was steeped in American cultural history, was to be shot in Hollywood, and would feature a quirky gallery of American performers (John Goodman, James Crowell, Missi Pyle, and Penelope Ann Miller), “The Artist” was pitched as a silent, black-and-white movie about silent, black-and-white movies. In other words, it would be a hard sell for US audiences accustomed to a steady diet of star power and traditional storytelling.

The turning point for “The Artist” came when it was added to the Cannes competition line-up last May. Journalists who grumbled while queuing to see a film with no colour or dialogue at 8:30 am leapt to their feet two hours later in rapturous applause. Meanwhile, jury president Robert De Niro was said to have been delighted by the film’s loving tribute to a bygone era and its bittersweet story of a washed-up idol, his loyal dog, and an up-and-coming young starlet (played by Berenice Bejo). Dujardin snagged the festival’s best actor prize.

Hollywood studio chairman Harvey Weinstein quickly snatched up the rights to the film, gambling that its sly French take on nostalgic Americana (complete with old-fashioned song-and-dance numbers and crowd-pleasing slapstick sequences) would dazzle US audiences, critics, and Academy voters tired of giant budgets and technology-driven visual effects.

He was right. “The Artist” premiered in the States to stellar reviews – The New York Times called it “an irresistible reminder of nearly everything that makes the movies great” – and strong box office figures. It then went on to win a fair share of the year-end critics’ awards and more Golden Globe nominations than any other film.

French cinema meets US packaging

Weinstein, famous for rolling out full-throttle campaigns that have driven European-flavoured films like “Shakespeare in Love” and “The King’s Speech” to Oscar gold, has similarly pushed “The Artist” through the pre-Academy Awards gauntlet: He has worked the room at industry events, enlisted former silent star Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters to host screenings of the film, and sent Dujardin, who speaks halting, accented English, to charm his way through US television interviews with dance steps and zany imitations (Robert De Niro, a camel, and then Robert De Niro mixed with a camel). Even Uggie, the dog from the film, has been scampering down red carpets (and up onto the Golden Globes stage Sunday night), rolling over and holding out a paw to reporters and fans.

An American-themed French film launching a Stateside charm offensive in search of US recognition makes for an odd spectacle in France, whose César awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) are rarely preceded by such voter-courting. Many have attributed “The Artist”’s serendipitous US run to the fact that its French roots are camouflaged; the film takes place in America and features English intertitles and no French dialogue. French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur recently quipped that the movie will win Oscars, because “Americans don’t know [it] is a French film”. Or perhaps, as The New York Times phrased it, the enthusiastic American response to the movie stems from “Hollywood’s fascination with itself”.

In either case, the film has started to elicit a mild, somewhat inevitable, bit of backlash. Kim Novak, the leading lady from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, publically slammed “The Artist” for “violating” the earlier film by borrowing its famous music. And even some of the movie’s most prominent advocates have started qualifying their enthusiasm. Influential critic Owen Gleiberman of magazine Entertainment Weekly wrote in a re-assessment of his initial review: “In the end, I was more softly touched than moved by it….I think it’s a movie that in its sentimental design, its embrace of love-conquers-all ancient Hollywood conventions, wants to move you. If “The Artist” fails to win Best Picture, it will be, in my opinion, because the final effect of the movie is a bit too genteel.”

Such reactions have led French daily Le Figaro to ponder “if all the buzz around a small French film has started to annoy people” in Hollywood.

Time will tell: Academy Award nominations are to be announced next week.

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