It took a French filmmaker to bring Hollywood's golden age back to glorious life.
"The Artist," director Michel Hazanavicius' effervescent homage to the silent cinema, has charmed moviegoers at the Cannes Film Festival and looks set to do the same to audiences around the world.
The 1920s-set story of George Valentin, a leading man whose career is sunk by the coming of the talkies, and his relationship with rising starlet Peppy Miller, it's both a playful take on silent film style and a faithful recreation of it _ shot in black-and-white and wordless save for one brief scene.
Chosen to compete at Cannes just days before the festival opened, "The Artist" has become the event's surprise hit. It's carried by its humor and visual flair, by the buoyant performances of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in the leading roles, and by the director's clear passion for the movies.
Hazanavicius said making "The Artist" was itself like a film _ one in which the plucky hero triumphs against all odds.
"It's really like a Frank Capra movie," the director said during an interview. "Nobody thought we were going to do it. Everybody said, they're crazy. ... We were undoable, and we became doable."
He thinks he's not alone in being drawn to silent movies.
"I think it's the ultimate form of cinema," he said. "I'm sure there are a lot of directors who have the fantasy to do it, and I had the opportunity."
Hazanavicius credits producer Thomas Langmann for backing what must have seemed a risky proposition _ especially when the director said he wanted to film in Los Angeles.
The movie features the city's early 20th-century architecture and studio lots, as well as familiar American faces, including John Goodman as a gruff studio boss and James Cromwell as Valentin's devoted chauffeur. (It also includes the most charming screen dog since Asta in "The Thin Man").
"To do it in Los Angeles, the real Hollywood with all these American faces, accurate costumes, accurate cars, all the sets _ everything is so accurate. It really helps the movie," said the director, whose last two films were the French James Bond spoofs "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies." and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio."
"If Thomas had told me, 'We're going to do it, but we have to shoot it in Bulgaria,' of course I would have said yes, but it would be another movie."
Bejo is an Argentina-born French actress _ and Hazanavicius' real-life spouse _ whose international profile is about to be raised considerably. She said she loved the experience of working in the U.S. and "coming back home every night to a little house in the Hollywood hills."
"I was tap-dancing in my garage with the Hollywood sign in front of me, driving my car, feeling like a real American girl," she said. "I felt like the grand-grand-granddaughter of those actresses of the '20s. ... I felt all the ghosts of the '20s directors and actors."
"OSS 117" films _ which also featured Dujardin and Bejo _ were pitch-perfect spy movie parodies, proof of Hazanavicius' gift for comic pastiche. But with "The Artist" he played it straight, wringing real pathos from the tale of George's decline.
The director said he didn't want to make a spoof but "a romance ... a lovely, charming modest story."
"All the silent movies I have seen, the best ones are romances. Murnau's movies ... Chaplin's movies _ they are all melodramas."
He told his cast not to adopt an exaggerated 1920s acting style "because it will be parodic. It will be ridiculous."
Instead he used subtle visual clues, including filming at 22 frames per second, rather than the standard 24, to give the slight speeded-up look we recognize from old silent movies.
Bejo said she realized early on that she was going to have a lot of research for the role of a silent screen siren _ a task she relished.
"I was like a little girl in new playground," she said. "I read so many books and looked at so many pictures of the stars of the '20s.
"I looked at every wink of Marlene Dietrich. I looked at Joan Crawford dancing and putting her legs everywhere and getting crazy and I thought, those women were animals. There was something so sensual, so carnal."
Bejo said she realized then that "I am going to have to find a way of moving, talking, kissing."
"Normally when you're an actor you work not only on your body but on dialogue," she said. "This time I had to forget all the intellectual part and just let my body express everything."