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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actor Jean Dujardin won this year's best actor award at the Cannes film festival for playing a man who hardly says a word, but not because his character couldn't speak. In fact, he says quite a lot.
Dujardin stars in "The Artist," a silent movie made more than 80 years after those films gave way to "talkies," and the movie has Hollywood buzzing with Oscar talk. Directed by Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, it tells of a silent film star (Dujardin) whose career is cut short by the advent of sound.
"People think silent movies are intellectual," Hazanavicius told Reuters about his old-is-new-again creation. "It's just the opposite. It's really sensual. Instead, talking movies use dialogue in an intellectual way to tell stories."
In "The Artist," Dujardin plays George Valentin, a pompous leading man in 1920's Hollywood. French actress Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an ingenue looking for a big break.
The pair meet and fall in love, but the advent of talkies brings divergent fortunes. Valentin's career implodes, while the singing and dancing Miller rockets to stardom.
"The Artist" is, at its heart, a rather simple tale of personal redemption and love, but making a silent movie in these modern days of action, special effects and 3D was anything but easy.
"Everybody tells you that it's not do-able because nobody wants to see a silent movie," he said. "The first person I had to convince was myself."
Giving Hazanavicius and his investors confidence was his enthusiasm for the project and his success with a pair of spy spoofs, "OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies" and "OSS 117: Lost in Rio." Those movies mimicked early James Bond such as 1962's "Dr. No," and starred Dujardin in the lead role.
Bringing back the silent form for modern audiences was itself the obvious challenge, Hazanavicius said, noting that what appears to be a simpler storytelling form is deceptively complicated for both the filmmaker and audience.
"It's a paradox, in a way. The actors are very far from reality. You can't hear them. They are black-and-white," he explained. "But you fill the gap, as an audience, with your imagination. You create the voice, you create the sound design, you create your own dialogue."
And casting, he said, was also critical, because he needed actors who were experts at expressing ideas, thoughts and emotions with their body movements and facial expressions.
Dujardin recalled that when he first read the script, he was impressed by the director's ambition, but he admitted he was initially nervous about some of the more dramatic scenes.
"Up until then, we'd made comedies where we had a lot of fun with characters and situations," he explained. "'The Artist' was full of emotion. I was touched by all it said about cinema, its history and actors.
"I had no lines to hold on to ... But I discovered that silent film was almost an advantage. You just have to think of the feeling for it to show," Dujardin said.
The coming of sound permanently altered the language of cinema, transforming an image-focused medium into one often driven by words. But Hazanavicius feels something more was compromised.
"We lost a universal language and something which was really specific to the medium: to tell a story with moving images," he said.
It's no coincidence that many of Hollywood's greatest directors got their start in silent films: John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, to name a few.
Still, the director readily concedes that comedic filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges made witty and sophisticated dialogue their trademark.
"If you look at a great director like Ernst Lubitsch, his talking comedies are much better than his silent comedies."
And yet, Hazanavicius said he discovered that making a silent film gave him a better understanding of his craft.
"Watching a silent, I get the same feeling I had when I was a child looking at the movies in theaters," he confides. "I wanted to share that experience with an audience today."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Chris Michaud