Spoiler alert! The Hollywood awards season is upon us, and if you haven’t seen The Artist, the silent black-and-white charmer that won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical on Sunday night, read no further: get thee to a cinemaplex! We’ll wait!
The brave, slim-budget French production, which also topped the Critics’ Choice Awards on Thursday with four prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius, and has received nods from the Screen Actors’ and Directors’ Guilds, has become the Oscar favorite for Best Picture. The Artist’s story of love, fear, and reinvention is a tip of the hat to cinema past and yet manages an exhilarating freshness.
French star Jean Dujardin, who won the Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy on Sunday, has already taken top acting honors at Cannes for his portrayal of George Valentin, a late-1920s silent-film icon troubled by the dawn of the talkies. The swoonworthy Valentin—Errol Flynn moves, Clark Gable mustache, and irresistible screendog sidekick—suddenly falls out of favor when the studios opt for sound. Peppy Miller (Berenice Béjo) is the admiring ingénue who gets her big break on the soundstage. As George's and Peppy’s careers crisscross, the rising young actress and the brooding fallen star find love. (Here comes the spoiler. You’ve been warned!) Dujardin has only one spoken line in the film, two little words at the end that seem to explain everything.
But! When Newsweek sat down with Dujardin for an interview ahead of the film’s U.S. release in November, the star revealed the surprising truth about his character’s only line.
The film closes on a George Valentin renascent, tap-dancing into the talkies with his beloved on his arm. The director asks, One more take? “With pleasure,” Valentin says, with all the relief of a star reborn. But the words come out “wiz pléjure”—no less charming for the thick French accent (au contraire) but a surprise that seems a pithy revelation, the mysterious weight on Valentin’s shoulders suddenly apparent in the unexpected pronunciation. Fans have taken the closing phrase as confessional, reason enough for Valentin’s reluctance to accept change, reading his downfall into those two words: the heavy Hollywood burden of an unshakable accent.
Not so fast. Dujardin says that wasn’t the intention at all. “We never thought of that,” he told Newsweek at Paris’s vintage Harcourt photo studio steps from the Champs-Elysées. Indeed, Dujardin claims his interpretation differed with writer-director Hazanavicius’s own implicit backstory for his character.
Dujardin, a top draw in his native France, readily admits his English is shaky, for now. He told Newsweek, in French, that he would be traveling to Los Angeles with an English tutor by his side. And he let out a telltale nervous sigh when he explained that, after the interview, he would be taping new English making-of clips for The Artist. Asked whether Valentin’s “wiz pléjure” is Dujardin’s genuine accent in English, he laughs. “It is my real accent,” he says. “I would have had to do it American style. We tried to redo it later, in post-sync. But no one asked me, on the set, Michel [Hazanavicius] doesn’t at all ask me to go ‘with pleasure,’ to do it a bit American with the accent.”
The Artist is Dujardin’s third film written and directed by his compatriot Hazanavicius. He explains that the filmmaker wanted him to say the line “with acting that doesn’t fit the phrase, with really a desire to go, ‘Aw, yeah, OK, let’s go!’ And it doesn’t fit the length of the phrase. It doesn’t fit. So I wind up Frenchifying it a lot. And at the same time, I always saw the character as a Frenchman myself: Georges Valentin,” he says, with a soft “g” sound, à la française. “Whereas for [Hazanavicius], he’s an American. It’s ‘Djeorge.’”
Through his grueling weeks of tap lessons and the 35-day Hollywood shoot, Dujardin says he always imagined that Valentin had come to America with his family in the 19th century. “And then, as they did in the era, it’s silent film, so there could be Italians, Irish people, French people. So it amused me to say ‘wiz pléjure,’” he says.
But the idea that Valentin’s accent was the reason he couldn’t make the leap to talking movies? “Ah, no. We never thought of that.” No? “No. That is coming up now, obviously, when folks hear ‘wiz pléjure’ they understand why he had trouble getting into the talkies,” he says with a laugh. But that wasn’t the goal? “No, that wasn’t conscious at all. Not at all.”
Still, the actor says he thinks it’s great that people do interpret it that way. “I mean, at the same time, I live the same thing as George Valentin in the United States. Since I don’t speak English very well, I find myself in a world with mouths, with people talking, and I don’t understand anything at all,” he jokes.
Surely viewers forgive Jean Dujardin making acceptance speeches in his now-famous foreign lilt. His new American fans are listening, wiz pléjure.