Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo receive the 2012 SBIFF Cinema Vanguard Award at the Arlington Theatre Feb. 4, 2012
Paul Wellman

It might seem counterintuitive that a film about the end of Hollywood’s silent movie era would be written and directed by a Frenchman and star two actors from the same country. But The Artist’s lead actress, during the SBIFF’s final tribute event, had a blunt and convincing explanation for why the overseas-based strategy works so well.

“It’s French people making a love letter to Hollywood and America,” said Berenice Bejo. “It’s all about telling you how much we love you.” If U.S. actors were cast and the movie funded here, she went on, the film could’ve come across as “pretentious” or “egocentric,” all about the people in it and making it rather than the sudden and poignant shift in U.S. filmmaking culture.

Bejo and her co-star Jean Dujardin received the Vanguard Award Saturday night, honored for their risk-taking roles in a silent film nominated for 10 Oscars — including best actor possibilities for both stars — and universally lauded by critics as brave, rebellious, and innovative. After waving to the organist as he and the massive electric instrument descended down into the stage — classical pieces and showbiz tunes boomed around the Arlington Theatre as the crowd filed in — Bejo and Dujardin chatted with SBIFF Director Roger Durling about their careers, what it’s like to work on a silent film set, and how they feel about their newfound fame in the U.S.

(Before that, however, Doug Stone, chairman of the SBIFF Board of Directors, said a few words about the sudden and tragic passing of Mike DeGruy. The affable and award-winning underwater filmmaker was killed Saturday in a helicopter crash in Australia as he scouted locations for a new project. Stone lamented the loss — DeGruy lived in Santa Barbara and organized the festival’s Reel Nature sidebar — but explained, “He would want us to forge ahead.”)

Delivering his intro first in French, Durling called the pairing of Dujardin and Bejo in The Artist a “force to be reckoned with,” exclaiming they “sparkle, swoon, and suffer so beautifully that we forget we never hear them speak.” With Oscar-worthy smiles, the duo is the 21st century’s answer to Fellini’s Ginger and Fred, Durling said.

Charming and humble, Dujardin and Bejo said the blizzard of publicity they’re receiving is somewhat “awkward” for them, that the fanfare at times seems “irrational and abstract.” They’re very appreciative of the admiration, they were quick to explain, but find themselves shy at such big events. Whatever inhibitions they had when they first walked on stage, though, quickly fell away as both had the crowd laughing and clapping throughout the evening.

Prompted by Durling’s questions about her early life, Bejo explained her father was a filmmaker and she knew she wanted to act by the early age of four. Growing up, her family had a collection of 3,000 VHS tapes, and every Saturday her dad would make a pizza and they’d pick one to watch. She felt so much emotion as she took in the movies, Bejo explained, that she wanted to bring those feelings to the screen as well.

Dujardin — white-hot famous in France but relatively unknown here — said, with the help of an interpreter, that he never dreamed of making it as an actor, working in construction and serving in the military as a young man. He started performing and bars and cabarets — “I could have stopped there,” he half-joked — before chance encounters and unexpected opportunities launched his career. Unable to deny he enjoys his fame in France where, interestingly, most of his roles are comedic, Dujardin said it was equally as nice as he filmed The Artist in L.A. to be able to go to a bar without being noticed and watch the Lakers.

The meeting that really changed his life, Dujardin went on, was with Bejo’s husband and The Artist director/writer, Michel Hazanavicius. “We have that in common,” Dujardin said as he turned and smiled to Bejo. “Michel changed both our lives.” Bejo joked that the two men share a special bond on and off the set — they’d worked together before on a few French films — and she tries not to be jealous of their bromance.

Filming on a silent movie set offered many unusual opportunities and challenges, the two explained. Though there was a regular working script, the actors would sometimes improvise lines in English, French, and “gibberish” when a day of shooting called for dozens of takes. For example, Bejo remembered, she had a hard time staying focused and mustering over-the-top enthusiasm during a scene when her character meets Dujardin at a production studio headquarters. Bejo, supposed to be gleefully happy to see Dujardin, reminisced her inner and outer monologue: “This is great! I’m so bored of what I’m saying! Michel, cut the scene!”

When they filmed the sequence during which Dujardin’s character finds out Bejo secretly bought many of his auctioned belongings after his career hit the skids, Dujardin explained Hazanavicius played music during the actual filming. The melody began to coincide with his movements and gestures, he said, creating a magical, real-time overlay of the visuals and the score. When the scene was finished, the crew burst into applause, recognizing how unique and special the whole project was.

After a number of clips were played of their past roles — Bejo playfully grimaced at some of her earlier work, such as a bit part in A Knight’s Tale — the two were presented their Vanguard Awards by actor Malcolm McDowell and Hazanavicius. Keeping the lighthearted banter that played throughout the night alive, Hazanavicius said he’s been asked a number of times why Dujardin and Bejo’s characters, clearly love interests, never kiss in the movie.

Pointing out their good looks and wit, and assuming the role of the jealous husband for a moment, Hazanavicius said it should be obvious why he never had them lock lips. “It would be stupid,” he said with a wry smile. Before Hazanavicius could get out his next line, Dujardin jumped out of his chair and wrapped Bejo in a bear hug and buried his face in hers. As they almost fell off the back of their chairs, the audience roared with laughter.


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