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Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo make noise for ‘The Artist’

There’s a very good chance that Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, two actors little-known outside of France, will be nominated for Academy Awards next year. Not that such an honor holds much immediate meaning for the stars of “The Artist,” the silent black-and-white film that has become a critical darling on the festival circuit since having its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“In America, there’s a big audience for the Oscars?” Bejo, 35, inquired, genuinely puzzled. During a recent trip to Los Angeles, she was sitting next to Dujardin, who was accompanied by a translator because he does not speak much English.

“I don’t even watch the Cesars,” Dujardin added with a shrug, referring to France’s national film awards, for which he has been nominated before.

Both actors are quickly learning the ins-and-outs of Hollywood’s awards season, though, because “The Artist” ― which opened in limited release in Los Angeles on Friday ― has been amassing rave reviews. (Tuesday it was named best picture of 2011 by the New York Film Critics Circle.)

Hardly the standard issue Hollywood holiday fare, “The Artist” is a both a love story and a love letter to the golden age of cinema that serves as its backdrop. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film star who finds himself unceremoniously dropped from the A-list with the arrival of talkies; Bejo is the aptly named Peppy Miller, a sassy song-and-dance gal whose career is on the rise just as George’s begins to falter. She ultimately helps George navigate the rocky transition to the next phase of life.

For months, the duo has been working tirelessly to get the word out about the movie, with Dujardin, who is a household name in France, pushing production back on another film to devote his time to publicity demands. Bejo too has made sacrifices: She has traveled relentlessly, despite the fact that she gave birth to her second child with the film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, in September.

As a result of all the time spent together, the trio has become tight-knit; during a recent media day in Los Angeles, Dujardin, Bejo and their director stuck close to one another, frequently dissolving into laughter and long conversations in their native language.
Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller star in Michel Hazanavicius’s film “The Artist.” (MCT)
Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller star in Michel Hazanavicius’s film “The Artist.” (MCT)

Their professional relationship dates to 2006, when Dujardin and Bejo starred in Hazanavicius’ spoof, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.” That film spawned a Dujardin-led follow-up, though it was Bejo who had an early line on “The Artist.” She and Hazanavicius would watch silent films together, and she began studying his books about the era.

When the filmmaker approached them with his conceit for “The Artist,” both actors, who had, at that point, seen only the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, were initially worried that Hazanavicius’ film might require them to do pantomime. Reviewing an F.W. Murnau silent movie from 1930 helped convince them the concept could work.

“We went to see ‘City Girl,’ and we were like, ‘Oh, OK, this is normal,’” Bejo said. “The direction of the acting isn’t pantomime or overacting ― it’s something very realistic. When Michel has an idea, I trust him. I said, ‘Let’s find the money and let’s go.’ I didn’t feel like this was an impossible thing.”

Over the last decade, Bejo has been steadily gaining attention for her work in comedies ― though she also had a supporting role in the action film “A Knight’s Tale,” which starred the late Heath Ledger ― and she was able to draw upon her earlier experiences to help convey Peppy’s enthusiasm and sweetly indomitable spirit.

Despite her appearance in a U.S. production, the actress says she’s been content to work primarily in France.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to do something in America, and I liked it, but I was not ready to come over here afterward,” Bejo said of the 2001 film. “I think you need a break in your own country to do something in America, so that was not my time.”

Dujardin ― whom Francois Truffart, director of the L.A.-based French film festival ColCoa, described as “like George Clooney” in France ― says he revels in his relative anonymity in the U.S., though he seems compelled to try to convey the level of his celebrity abroad.

“I’m very popular in France. I live with my fame very well, as long as no one spits on me,” Dujardin, 39, said with his signature grin. “People don’t even ask to take my picture ― they just take it. It’s too bad. It dehumanizes the relationship. I prefer when they come over and shake my hand.”

Oddly, though, Dujardin never aspired to stardom: After high school, he worked for his parent’s construction company, and it was only while serving his mandatory military service a few years later that he began to contemplate an acting career.

Inspired by the diversity of characters he encountered in the barracks, he wrote a one-man show and began performing it in the basements of Parisian bars and cabarets. He got his first big break on “Un Gars, Une Fille,” a popular television sitcom.

By Amy Kaufman

(Los Angeles Times)