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Talking (in French) with Michel Hazanavicius & Berenice Bejo of THE ARTIST

Michel Hazanavicius Berenice Bejo 2

The Artist was an unprecedented film. Movies don’t come in black and white anymore. And no one would think to make a silent black-and-white film in 2010.

When you chat with the brains behind the film, it makes sense. These are incredibly French, reserved folk who speak in hushed tones. I’ve spent a lot of time in France (my Grandma lives in Paris) and I’ve grown up all around their culture. For me, Paris is the Seattle of Europe: people are a little cold and abrasive, but witty and intelligent. The French tend to keep to themselves, but they’re warm at heart.

Michel Hazanavicius and Berenice Bejo started collaborating back in 2006 when she starred in Michel’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies alongside Jean Dujardin. Since then, they’ve made three more films together and along the way won plenty of awards for their 2011 silent black-and-white The Artist — including Oscars for Best Feature and Best Director for Michel. Both are incredibly talented, humble, quiet and fairly unflappable — Michel wasn’t impressed at all when I told him that he went to school just 20 kilometers from my Grandma’s apartment. They’re married with two kids and the fame doesn’t seem to have gotten to their heads. I got a chance to chat with them both (in French) at SIFF Cinema about their lives after the Oscars, their upcoming film The Search (a remake of the 1948 movie about war-torn Chechnya), and their filmmaking progress.

 

Q: First off, how have your lives changed since The Artist?

Berenice Bejo: Well, it certainly helps assure producers and directors, so there are more offers for projects. Of course, when you make a successful film, you become more ‘bankable.’

Michel Hazanavicius: Like she said, people — financiers — trust us more, so we’re a little freer to make films that aren’t necessarily block-busters. Certain people like you better than they did before and some less, but in our day-to-day lives nothing has really changed. [Winning awards] doesn’t give you talent, things don’t get any easier.

Q: But things must be at least a little easier…

MH: People trust you more, yeah.

Q: Is that why you both took on the challenge of making The Search?

BB: Yes.

Q: So why did you choose to do this film over maybe something else?

MH: Well it’s a true story that took place close to [France], in Chechnya. 300,000 people were killed from all across the continent. I wanted to do something, I wasn’t exactly sure how or what, but voilá, it’s a movie that’s enormously impossible to make and it’s really the Oscar that made it possible for it to be right cinematographically. Ultimately, I was just really interested in this film.

Q: Bérénice, how was it making The Search?

BB: For me, as an actress, to make an engaging film with a point-of-view that involves tragic events that are relatively recent, I think it’s a great thing to be involved with. As someone who has the potential to help people other than just themselves, I was happy to make this film along with Michel.

Q: Do you guys like working together?

MH: [laughs] Absolutely.

Q: What about Jean Dujardin, was there not a role for him in the film?

MH: Jean is immensely talented and I’d always love to have him in any movie I make. At the same time, we’ve worked on four projects together: two OSS 117 movies, The Artist and a recent project called The Players. I think it’s always good to diversify who you work with and what you’re working on.

Q: I remember the first time I saw OSS 117 was with my Grandma in Paris. It’s really interesting because — well, to be honest —I hadn’t seen The Artist until I heard we’d be doing the interview. I never would have made the connection that you both were involved in the two films. OSS, The Artist, and now The Search are such different movies with different themes. Why have you chosen to make such a broad range of films?

MH: Well, some nights you want to eat chicken, others you might be craving fish. For me, with films it’s the same way. I love comedy. I think it’s a really, really noble genre and I’ll certainly make more comedies in the future. But, I also have other desires. Just because you want to eat chicken one night doesn’t mean you want it for dinner every night. I’m lucky enough to be able to follow my various passions.

Q: Bérénice is it different as an actress?

BB: There are different rules in every genre. When you make a comedy, I think there’s a rhythm to it that’s vastly different from when you’re acting in a realist war film. There are slight differences, but the principal is always the same: to understand your character. You have to be subtle — you don’t want to try too hard to be funny to make people laugh when you’re making a comedy, and you don’t want to cry or try to make your audience cry when you’re making a drama. The most important thing is to just be the character, and if you do the job right people will laugh or cry.

Just like Michel, I like to watch comedies and movies that are a little more dramatic, and I really enjoy the opportunity to make both instead of just being categorized as an actress that only works in certain types of films.

Q: Do you guys ever want to try swapping roles: Michel working as an actor and Bérénice as a director?

BB: No, no.

MH: I’ve been an actor on two different occasions recently, working for friends in some small roles. It was fun but to work as an actor you have to be really invested in it. I’ve done it but it wasn’t serious. It’s not something I would want to do full-time.

Q: Michel, I’ve watched some of your interviews and I’ve noticed — primarily when you’re interviewed in English — that you like to say that certain aspects involving a film aren’t “your job.” As a Director, what is your job, what’s your goal in your work?

MH: As a director, my job is to be the writer and to direct. Beyond that, I think my goal is to tell stories and to be in charge so that everyone who is working to tell this story tells it the same way. My work is kind of as “decorator.” I make sure the cinematographer and the musician are on the same page, and the actors and the crew all work together so that everyone can do their job. It’s almost like an orchestra, where everyone has to play together. Everyone has to have the same tempo.

Q: I haven’t seen The Search yet, but at least in the trailer it seems that a large part of the film is in English. The Artist was acted in English as well. Why choose English over your native French?

MH: In fact it’s for the realism of the story and the characters. The Artist takes place in a specific time period, the 1920’s, and I realized that there were certain words that were universally familiar and the audience could recognize in English. In French, it’s not the same. We chose English over French because it was best for the image, for the film. You can’t have a character in America who’s speaking French.

In The Search, she speaks English and French equally, because English is the international language. When you’re working with Italians or Danes or Spaniards or Russians, everyone speaks English, but it’s an international English: not an American English or a British one. It’s an English everyone can understand.

Q: I want to be like Ben Affleck: I want to act, I want to write, I want to direct — I’m just not pretty enough. But it’s really hard to go from pre-production and the idea you have in your mind to actually making it, and then to come out with a finished product that is like what you originally intended. What’s your process, either as an actress like Bérénice or a writer/director like you, Michel, and how do you put all the pieces together?

MH: To start off, it has to come from the desire to film something. There has to be a spark, an idea that makes you think “wow, I really need to make this.” After all, the process is to direct everything to a common point where the intuition you had originally can be realized.

Writing’s hard because everything is possible when you write. Writing doesn’t cost anything, you just need a pen and paper and you can come up with any idea you want. Then, you’ve got to raise money, cast, hire crew, get equipment, find producers, voilá. That part is far more rigorous, and you have to be sure that everything you’re trying to do is possible and not too out there or impossible to make. At the same time, you have to work at a level where you’re not asking too much from the audience. You have to take your idea and craft a film that’s realistic, that’s watchable.

Acting’s different, because it’s not the way I express myself. What’s nice with Bérénice is that we’re working together from the start and we’re crafting the idea together, so the process is at least somewhat easier.

Q: Last question: who’s the real ‘artist’? Is it Jean Dujardin’s character or is it you Michel?

MH: It’s the character. I didn’t come up with the title, the producers did. It worked well with the film because it’s a silent black-and-white film so it’s got an “artsy” side. For me the idea of being an artist or not being an artist doesn’t really come up. I consider myself a writer and a director and I have a pretty artisanal view of this type of work. I don’t perform. Actors perform. The Artist kind of represents all of us, but if it had to be Jean then it would be just as much Jean as Bérénice.

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Out in Theaters: THE MONUMENTS MEN

“The Monuments Men”
Directed by George Clooney
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Winslet, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban
Action, Biography, Drama
118 Mins
PG-13

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George Clooney
‘s The Monument’s Men is a monumess. A sloppily assembled patchwork of scenes, it’s a great story with no backbone that flops from event to event like a fish out of water. Without the propulsion of any kind of momentum, the tale sags, leaving us dulled to the story’s eventual important moments. With all the talent involved and Clooney behind the camera, we expect something with panache, wit and style and instead are served up this goofy slop of events thrown at the stage with all the disheveled precision of a pie-in-the-face. However intriguing the “true story” behind the film, it is apparently best left in books or relayed in insightful anecdotes as Clooney has all but snuffed the life out of what ought to be a monumental account. As Roger Ebert famously said, “Movies are not about what they are about, but how they are about it.” Here, Clooney’s how looks a lot like wingin’ it.

As mentioned above, the biggest problem holding The Monuments Men back from glory is how frumpily the series of events are organized. Scenes flow into each other like class five rapids, positively clashing and jarring any sense of time or place. Tacking a scene set in France onto one in Germany or America, we never have a foothold on where we are or when exactly anything is taking place. Clooney throws date on the screen but they will hop to another moment in time and another character whose location and significance we can only guess. Only when Clooney’s voiceover cuts through are we informed of the context of the content; a sure sign of narrative failure. When you’re tasked with explaining to the audience what they’re seeing, you know you’re taken a wrong turn off the successful storytelling highway.

So as the film crashes from one scene to another, we’re left trying to hold onto some semblence of structure and even the characters give us little to grasp onto. With the likes of Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin and Bob Balaban assembled, one would expect stirring ensemble work but, for the most part, Clooney shies away from satisfying character development or captivating ensemble work. The only time he stops to really try and delve into characters are when they face death. What he fails to understand is that we already need to be invested at that point. You can’t kill someone off and then try and make them important posthumously. These “oh wait” moments ring a clear signal of his inability to save the unfocused screenplay from itself and a blinding sign of his desperate attempts to course correct too late in the game.

Even with all these missteps, there are a number of intriguing and poignant scenes interspersed throughout but even they come across as too clunkily set and architecturally inorganic to propel the audience into a suspended state of caring. We want to know who these characters are but we rarely do. Goodman is just kind of there, Dujardin plays up his irresistible French charm and Balaban has some nice material to work his mousey persona on but none really amount to much more than appreciators of art. When Murray is given a dramatic moment to break down in the shower, he puts in some solid work but it makes no sense in the context surrounding that moment. It’s like watching wrestling at the nail salon. It just doesn’t gel.

Where Monuments Men’s biggest disappointment is its squandered use of a killer cast. I will give credit to Cate Winslet, who will soon likely be an Academy Award winner, for her work as a Parisian art aficionado as her work is more notable than any of the gentlemen with whom she shares the screen.

And if you thought War Horse was old-fashion wait until you get a load of this. From the hokey John Williams-wannabe score (courtesy of Alexandre Desplat) to the almost played-for-laughs Nazi presence, it’s just one long page in the book of cinematic taboo. While this may have worked better in 1965, it certainly doesn’t fit 2014. Clooney has been able to manipulate time periods to his liking in the past but his attempt to do a period piece told in dated fashion works about as well as telling the Rwanda Genocide as a rom-com.

One thing is abundantly clear at this junction, Clooney’s art junkie project was certainly not moved from its original release date to “fix up the effects.” Columbia must have know they had little more than a hodgepodge of scenes and didn’t know how to piece them together. The resulting papier mâchéd clunker of a wartime dramedy is a futile effort at grasping at straws. Worse yet, it’s boring.

C-

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Out in Theaters: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

“The Wolf of Wall Street”
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Cristin Milioti 
Biography, Comedy, Crime
180 Mins
R

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Martin Scorsese
‘s The Wolf of Wall Street is a bombastic raunchfest spilling over with feverish humor and held in place by vibrant direction from Martin Scorsese and unhinged performances from its gifted cast. Sprawling and episodic, this “greed is great” epic is not only the funniest movie of the year, not only has one of the most outstanding performances in recent history, and not only is one of the most explicit films to hit the theaters under the guise of an R-rating, but, like icing on the proverbial cake, it offers a colossally poignant and timely cultural deconstruction of the financial institutions on which our country depends. And though it runs for exactly three hours, I’d watch this strung-out saga again in a second. A messy masterpiece on all fronts, The Wolf of Wall Street is a towering achievement.

We know that reality is often stranger than fiction but Scorsese’s encapsulation of the world of Jordan Belfort and his scurrying dervishes is like lifting a rock to find a thriving hive of ants equipped with Tony Montana-worthy piles of cocaine and strippers decked out in ever-fashionable neon beneath. Their iniquitous ways the stuff of adolescent male fantasies and their drug-fueled, deranged shenanigans straight from a Hunter S. Thompson memoir, Belfort is a modern day Dionysus. Taking the mantle of this larger-than-life imp of an investment banker, Leonardo DiCaprio is unholy goodness.

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It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of DiCaprio’s and a performance like this proves my continued faith in the multifarious thespian. Ranging from manic to disturbed, possessed to contemptible, his commanding performance scraps subtly for an off-the-walls buffet of theatrics. And though he never quite swallows the pill of reality, Belfort’s arc is splattered in sober doubt and drug-fueled confidence, always anchored by a megalomaniac’s grip on the destiny of those in his company. Twisting what it means to be generous, he takes from the rich and poor alike and distributes the riches amongst his legions of fanboy-like employees.

But for his however ethically corrupt he is, he’s got his own twisted sense of morality, at once misanthropic towards the world at large and a gentle guardian of his own flock of flunky stock pushers. His minions, led by a brilliantly toothy Jonah Hill, see him as the God he wants so badly to be.

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Around the workplace, they call Belfort Wolfie; a nickname derived from his bullying brokering and his pick-up-the-scraps mentality. And as penny-stock pushers, Belfort and his henchmen turn scraps into millions, spinning gold from floss. Their office a carousal, Wolfie and Co.’s imperious rise to power is just too heinous to make up.

Beneath DiCaprio’s frantic and telescopic work as Belfort is a man feeding off his own energy. No matter how deluded Belfort can be, he’s a guy caught up in the moment, too high to not ride the waves of his own self-invented success. As an audience, we feed off the surge of energy too and let it drive us from scene to scene, always the intrigued voyeur.

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And like a pitch-perfect backup singer, Hill’s Donnie Azoff (based on over-the-counter stock broker Danny Porush, who threatened to sue if they didn’t change his name) is the wind beneath DiCaprio’s wings. From the first time he steps onscreen, he demands our attention with his mammoth chompers and sleazy Long Island accent. He’s got sidekick so down pat that he may as well be the piggy Robin to Belfort’s wicked Batman. And no matter how brief his appearance is here, Matthew McConaughey is once again on fire. As a steadfast FBI agent, Kyle Chandler also breaks out of his comfort zone and puts in a performance worthy of such an accomplished cast.

Though lots of names have been tossed around for award recognition, Hill will assuredly be seeing his second (and here, more deserved) nomination for his work. His unique blend of drama and comedy is a staggering success and has knocked any skeptics off the fence in one fell, chompy swoop. And while DiCaprio’s performance here is a show for the ages, it may again go overlooked by the notoriously antiquated Academy. Regardless, he is the king of Hollywood and has proved it in spades with his astonishing work in Wolf.

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But it’s not the performances alone that shine, as the movie flows smooth as butter. Looking at it as a whole, I wouldn’t want a single scene cut and that’s a testament to the seductive power of Scorsese’s film. With well over 500 counts of the f-bomb and enough female and male genitalia to perturb the most hip of parents, do be sure that you’re attending The Wolf of Wall Street with the right parties. This ain’t your grandma’s Scorsese.

A+

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