When Jean Dujardin was awarded the top acting prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his cocksure performance in The Artist, the 39-year-old Frenchman wasn’t quite sure how to react. “I didn’t want to go up on stage, it was intimidating,” says the square-jawed alpha male. “In the end, it was not a big deal. The room carried me. I saw Jude Law smiling, he looked happy! De Niro, too!”
That Dujardin now finds himself in such rarefied company is no mystery. He is France’s highest-paid male actor, after all. What’s surprising is the vehicle that launched him there. The Artist is a silent, black-and-white love letter to 1920s Hollywood. To be sure, it’s a risky old-fashioned cocktail—no dialogue and no color in the post-Avatar era?—but it’s also one of the most creative, joyous films of the year. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film star in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks, whose pre-talkie stardom withers away with the arrival of sound. In a cruel twist of fate, his would-be lover, Peppy Miller (played by the intoxicating Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the director’s wife), becomes the toast of the town.
Dujardin’s virtuoso performance relies heavily on exaggerated physicality and facial gymnastics—a flick of a cigarette, a timely lift of the eyebrow—techniques no doubt honed in his years of comedy work, including roles in two highly successful spy-film spoofs (think The Bourne Trilogy meets The Naked Gun). “He’s a real classical actor,” says fellow Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, who directed Dujardin in all three films. “One movie I made with him was set in the ’50s, the other in the ’60s. In the first one, he looked like a young Sean Connery, in the second, Ben Gazzara. He’s very flexible.”
With the Weinstein brothers hell-bent on hyping The Artist all the way to Oscar glory, Dujardin has a shot at the same crossover success that France’s Marion Cotillard enjoyed after she earned a golden statuette for her performance in La Vie En Rose. But does the veteran actor—who lives happily in Paris with his wife, actor Alexandra Lamy —crave that level of stateside acclaim? “I have to go for a good reason, not only to be involved in an American movie,” he says of Studio City. “But first I have to learn to speak English.”