‘The Artist’ Director’s Nod To Billy Wilder


It is a long way from pogroms in Eastern Europe to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

For Michel Hazanavicius it is highly likely that the trip will only have taken three generations.

Hazanavicius is the writer, director and editor of “The Artist,” the silent comedy-drama that garnered six Golden Globe nominations, including “best comedy or music film.” After the film also received nominations in three categories from the Screen Actors Guild awards, Entertainment Weekly’s handicapper, Dave Karger, had it ranked as his No. 1 pick for the Best Picture Oscar. If he’s right, Hazanavicius will be on the stage of the Chandler Pavilion, following in the footsteps of his hero, Billy Wilder.

“We are not religious,” Hazanavicius, 44, said of his family in a telephone interview last week. “But we certainly think of ourselves as Jewish, if only because of our history. All four of my grandparents came to France in the 1920s from Eastern Europe. They were fleeing pogroms and persecutions. Then came the Second World War and they had to run again. My parents were ‘hidden children,’ and some of the family died in the camps.”

He added dryly, “You can’t say you’re not Jewish with that kind of history, even if you don’t practice the religion.”

But he also thinks that his work, like Wilder’s, reflects his Jewish identity, in a highly specific key.

“There’s a kind of humor which is special,” Hazanavicius said. “I love the humor of Wilder and Ernst Lubistch, which is the Berliner humor. There is a way to be — never cynical — but with a very strange and elegant balance between cruelty and lucidity. But at the same time, it’s something very human and childish in another way. It’s extremely positive and extremely negative. I’ve been influenced by that. But I don’t want to be presumptuous. These guys were geniuses.”

When he was making “The Artist,” Hazanavicius readily admitted, he was thinking of Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.” With its unsettling but ultimately satisfying blend of comedy and melodrama, a shimmering palette of silvery gray tones, and its plot focus on the upheavals caused in the film industry by the coming of sound, “The Artist” has some clear echoes of Wilder’s 1950 classic.

Although “The Artist” isn’t as scathing as Wilder’s depiction of an industry filled with solipsists and ego-driven dreamers, it was, initially, even harder to get made.

“The first financial people we approached were sure the film wouldn’t be a hit,” the writer-director recalled. “They thought it could be a movie but they didn’t see the commercial possibilities. For a film to make money in France, we need the TV channels, and they don’t show black-and-white movies. That was the most difficult part.”

Ironically, it was the idea of making a silent film that gave the movie a financial chance. After all, before the coming of the talkies, film was a truly universal language, infinitely exportable. Hazanavicius saw the opportunity to return briefly to that era, allowing globalization to work for him for a change.

“I told them, maybe we’ll only do small [box office] numbers in France, but we’ll sell the film everywhere,” he said. “That’s why I set it in Hollywood. Everyone knows Hollywood.”

Today he admits that he was making that sales pitch with his fingers crossed, hoping he wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t, beyond his wildest imaginings.

“It was totally unexpectable,” he said last week, inventing a new but useful word. “I hope and I believe that people would enjoy the movie, but I couldn’t expect the strength of the reaction. In America [the reaction] is really incredible maybe because it’s your own story. And it’s a beautiful story. It’s much more than I expected.”

Of course, a best-picture nod at the Golden Globes on Jan. 15 and a similar result at the Academy Awards would likely propel the film to another level of commercial success in the U.S. market, one unprecedented for a French-made film.

But Hazanavicius isn’t thinking about winning.

“Even if we don’t win, just if we get a nomination, just to be in the predictions, it means a lot for me,” he said of the Oscars. “You just don’t lose in that competition. If you’re nominated for being one of five or six or eight best movies of the year, you don’t lose.”

On the other hand, he already has a sense of what it would mean to him personally.

“If I go there — I’m thinking of that, I have been for two days — what’s really touching for me, it’s about my family,” he admitted. “My parents were hidden during the war as kids, four and six years old, they had to hide from the Nazis. If 70 years afterwards I go to a ceremony like that — I don’t know how to say it. It’s indescribable for me.”

“The Artist” is playing at theaters across the metropolitan area. The Golden Globes will be awarded on Jan. 15, the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.