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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 PAST

“The Past”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Sabrina Ouazani
Foreign, Drama, Mystery
130 Mins
PG-13

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The Past is an extraordinarily difficult film loaded with powerhouse performances of perpetually grieving characters and a blanket of dreary subject matter. While it’s nice to get a break from the mindless drudge of early year releases, The Past goes too far in the opposite direction, offering a piece of work so harrowing and relentlessly gloomy that it’s near impossible to find any joy in watching it.

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) plays Marie Brisson, a forlorn woman who we meet through a pane glass window as she picks up Ali Mosaffa‘s Ahmad from the airport. At first their relationship is ambitious and we’re left guessing their status. Director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) seems to want to keep us in the dark for as long as possible as we’re not able to gather much about these two and the relationship they share. They could be friends, lovers, roommates or even family. As we try to piece together the details, the only thing that’s clear is that they have history. They have (sigh) a past.

As recklessly dour as A Separation, The Past quickly explodes into a series of accusations, abjection, and atonement; a collection of difficult scenes that provides the cast a series of lofty showcases but does little to stimulate our need for dramatic solace. We’re constantly grieving alongside the characters, breathing in their misery and sighing at the folly of their crumbling affairs.

Bejo, Rahim and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) are each afforded a bevy of opportunities to exhibit their dramatic capacity and with so much attention paid to the characters, it’s their exceeding commitment to the work that makes The Past compelling when it is. Each brings a sense of life to their character; shades of good and bad, airs of hope and despair. Their roles are fully human, peppered with fault and wound up by life, and that’s what keep the film afloat, demanding our interest and earning our empathy. Regardless of their mighty work though, the film is still 100% glum.

Ostensibly, the narrative comes down to our human capacity for guilt and blame and how the two can affect our lives in irrevocable ways. It’s about discarded relationships, rekindled flames and the connections we forge on our way to the grave. But all this harrowing philosophizing just goes to show how it’s no fun to watch people argue about who’s to blame for someone’s suicide attempt.

The character dynamics carry weighty gravitas and their tempered interactions hue closely to the real world but, for me, movies are at least partially about escapism and there’s no semblance of escape here. Watching The Past is like watching life through the window of a death ward. It’s dark and unforgiving and can take anything from you at any moment. Seeing the crusted loose ends of existence, confronting regrets and admitting the purposelessness of it all is an exercise we have to confront in the privacy of our own minds so watching Farhadi and his cast do so doesn’t astonish so much as depress. His Hakuna Matata is decidedly grim and certainly not sing song.

C