Oscar-Chasing The Artist Starts Strong In NYFF, Hamptons Festival Tour

The Artist, the silent film that has emerged since Cannes as one of the year's presumptive Oscar front-runners, finally makes landfall in the States this weekend: Following tonight's East Coast premiere at the New York Film Festival, Michel Hazanavicius's tribute to old Hollywood rolls out for audiences at the Hamptons Film Festival. And if today's early reactions at the NYFF press screening were any indication, all signs point to success.

Starring Jean Dujardin as a self-obsessed silent-era superstar marginalized by the advance of talkies, The Artist is a touching (if slightly overprecious) romp through cinema's first great sea change. Like fellow NYFF '11 class members My Week With Marilyn and Hugo, the film is also a gorgeous exercise in movie love -- this one shot in black and white on location at many of the backlots where its influences were born more than 80 years ago. Its surprises and wonders are too rich to spoil here, from the game supporting cast of American actors to an animal performance worth its own Oscar consideration, and it does lapse periodically into a simple-minded vanity that mirrors its main character's own worst trait. But as a showcase of pure filmmaking and performance craft, it's a blessedly singular piece of work.

Most impressive is Bérénice Bejo, the Argentinean actress who co-stars as upstart Hollywood starlet Peppy Miller. When a chance encounter with Dujardin's leading man George Valentin lands Peppy on the cover of the influential trade bible Variety (The Artist is nothing if not quaint), she creatively leverages her newfound notoriety to bring her spunk to the big screen. Her eventual ascent as the first star of the talking-picture era resembles the inverse of George's own path, but her memory of George as a movie legend -- a star in any era -- spurs her to act when the deposed king looks as though he might penetrate rock bottom.

Bejo's physicality in the role is otherworldly, from her flailing limbs in the dance sequences to her spectrum of expressions and reactions along her route to fame. Peppy is us, really, both a witness to the shift in the way we make, watch and enjoy movies as well as a partial observer to this great man's demise. She aspires to his status, but without the craven, cutthroat agenda we resent in so many of today's fame seekers.

Yet she is also a leading lady in the classic tradition. Bejo's respect for the greats reflects in her sly emulation of them, anchored in six months of research into everything from Janet Gaynor's Oscar-winning silent work to Gloria Swanson's autobiography.

"What was important for me was that I had to find a way of being an American actress -- which I'm not," Bejo told viewers this morning at Lincoln Center. "I'm from Argentina, and I live in France. So, a lot of contradictions. But I watched Murnau and Borzage and [...] my inspiration came from a lot of movies. Especially the young Joan Crawford, when she was 20, 25 years old. She was very crazy; she had a lot of freedom. She danced very well. I watched her dancing on the Internet, like, hundreds of times. Her legs are going there and there, and her arms... It was very cute and adorable, and I knew Peppy had to get this adorable thing [so] that men and women can relate to her and love her. You want her to become a star. So I had to find something very spontaneous with a lot of energy. I had to find the 'peps' of Peppy."

Also chief among Bejo's inspirations was Marlene Dietrich. "Marlene had something very special where every time she came into the frame, she had something very intense without doing anything," Bejo said. "She moved very slowly. The way she holds her cigarette, the way she moves, the way she winks... I looked for so many things. I Googled her! Again and again and again. That was the only thing I practiced: the wink and the whistle. And the tap dancing!"

Which also paid off, Bejo said -- to a point.

"Then Michel was like, 'Forget Joan, Marlene and Gloria, and just focus on you,'" she explained. "'Try to find you and the way you want to be Peppy Miller.' So after six months of working, watching and reading, I just focused on me, I guess."

The results speak for themselves. Well, they don't speak, exactly, but you know what I mean. Drop back by Movieline this weekend for more about The Artist's continued New York swing at the Hamptons International Film Festival.


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