The Artist: Silent film gem is the talk of Hollywood and could clean up at the Oscars

Silent gem The Artist that's the talk of Hollywood: The inside story of the film that could clean up at the Oscars

At a time when the biggest box office movies depend on 3D, computerised animation, rampant sex, mindless violence and spectacular action, along comes a film which has none of these ingredients to offer.

No, the French-made romantic drama The Artist — all 100 minutes of it — is filmed in black and white … and is silent. Yet the movie has already been nominated for six coveted Golden Globes and is likely to sweep the board at the Academy Awards in the spring.

The Mail’s film critic, Chris Tookey calls it ‘a work of genius: witty, sophisticated and blessedly original’.

Star quality: Brnice Bejo plays Peppy Miller in The Artist, a young dancer who becomes one of talking pictures' most luminous names

Star quality: Brnice Bejo plays Peppy Miller in The Artist, a young dancer who becomes one of talking pictures' most luminous names

The Artist tells the story of a star of the silent screen in late Twenties Hollywood called George Valentin, (played by the unknown Jean Dujardin), a man who can’t resist a curtain call (always taking three bows too many). And then along come the talkies, a development George contemptuously dismisses.

Not so for pretty Peppy Miller, an ingenue dancer, played with fresh-faced charm by 35-year-old Franco-Argentinian actress, Berenice Bejo, (the wife, incidentally, of director Michel Hazanavicus) who becomes one of talking pictures’ most luminous names as George sinks into oblivion, seeking solace in hard liquor.

It would spoil the story to reveal more — except that one of the unexpected stars of the movie is George’s Jack Russell, Uggie. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, he picked up the Palm Dog award (it really exists) to rank alongside Jean Dujardin’s Best Actor gong.

But The Artist very nearly didn’t get made. It took ten years since the first stirrings of the idea. ‘For some time, it was no more than a private fantasy,’ says director Michel. ‘Now it’s made, I’ve met lots of directors and they’ve all told me how jealous they are. They would love to make a silent movie.’

Michel couldn’t be happier with his film’s growing word-of-mouth reputation, not least, because the silent movie format presents such particular challenges. ‘I tried not to be ironic or cynical or sarcastic. You have to make bold statements. With no dialogue, everything must be simple,’ he says. ‘My aim was to make a mainstream, feelgood movie. I didn’t want it to be an art-house film.’

Jean Dujardin (left), as silent movie star George Valentin, with John Goodman in The Artist

Jean Dujardin (left), as silent movie star George Valentin, with John Goodman in The Artist

That meant getting a major distributor on-board. He materialised in the shape of Harvey Weinstein, the man behind Shakespeare In Love.

‘When he’d decided to buy the distribution rights,’ recalls Michel. ‘He rang his brother with whom he runs the Weinstein Company. “I’ve just bought a new film,” he told him. “Excellent,” came the reply. “It’s about Hollywood.” “Great.” “It’s French.” “No problem.” “It’s in black and white.” “Well, OK.” “And it’s silent.” “What! Are you crazy” ’

Michel chuckles. ‘The film goes so much against current trends.’ he says. ‘We were right in the middle of the Avatar craze, in full 3D mania when we were making it, and it was as if I was at the wheel of a 2CV with Formula One cars roaring past me.’

Word soon got out about Michel’s unusual project. ‘I got a call from Malcolm McDowell. Could he come and see me When he arrived, I explained I had no part for an actor of his standing but he didn’t care. He’s on-screen for three minutes but he was happy. It was such an honour to have him involved.’ Michel had written the role of Peppy with his wife Berenice in mind.

‘Berenice is very like Peppy: open, fresh, friendly. And she became passionate about the film. She watched all the old movies, listened to all the soundtracks.’

What everyone is waiting to hear now is whether the film will be nominated for any Oscars. ‘People are even talking about it carrying off the ultimate prize of Best Film,’ says Michel, looking sheepish.

Will The Artist pip all those full-colour, full-on, non-stop talkative contenders to the post ‘Oh, I would be the happiest, luckiest man alive if that were to happen,’ sighs the man who conceived, wrote and directed the most engaging film of the year.

The Artist opens in cinemas nationwide today.