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Silence is golden: 'The Artist' is set to make an Oscar-worthy star of Bérénice Bejo

Bérénice Bejo has until now been restricted to minor mainstream roles and sidekick parts in French farces. But Oscar buzz is growing thanks,somewhat oddly, to a black-and-white throwback to Hollywood's silent era.

A curious thing happened in May this year. Critics reviewing a film called The Artist found themselves using – possibly for the first time in history – the phrase "The feel-good hit of the Cannes competition". Even if this year's line-up did focus largely on prostitution, child abuse and the end of the world, The Artist still stuck out as an anomaly and a half.

The story of a movie star in decline and an ingénue on the way up (echoes of A Star is Born are hardly accidental), this elegant black-and-white silent comedy/melodrama/musical set in Hollywood's Golden Age may not sound like an obvious sure-fire blockbuster. Yet The Artist does, as they say, have something for everyone: swoony romance, adventure, top-hat-and-tails glamour, conceptual gags about sound and silence, even an intrepid mutt who saves the day (played by a terrier called Uggy, who won the unofficial Cannes Palm Dog award). As they certainly didn't say in 1920s Hollywood, what's not to like? k

Did I mention, by the way, that the film is French? And those involved, famous as they are at home, are largely unknown elsewhere. But lead actor Jean Dujardin (named Best Actor in Cannes), co-star Bérénice Bejo and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius will all soon be familiar names. On the first day of Cannes, where The Artist was a surprise last-minute addition to the competition, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had acquired the film, and word went around that he was already booting up its Oscars campaign. Since then, the film has been a hit in France and a critical toast in the US.

But The Artist's players are not altogether used to being taken seriously. Dujardin, who plays raffish matinée idol George Valentin, is best known for broader big-screen creations – idiot French surfer Brice de Nice, cartoon cowboy Lucky Luke, and Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. The latter – a smirking Cary Grant-Sean Connery hybrid – is the lame-brained hero of the two OSS 117 films, retro spy spoofs directed and co-written by Hazanavicius. (His name is pronounced more or less as in, "Lovely bloke – Hazanavicius bone in his body.") As for the Argentina-born Bejo, the director's partner, she was Dujardin's femme-fatale foil in the first OSS film: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) and has acted in a crop of features little seen outside France. She also had a brief Hollywood outing, as a maidservant in medieval fantasy A Knight's Tale (2001), and a decade ago starred in a showbiz comedy called Meilleur Espoir Féminin (Most Promising Young Actress) – a title which has recently afforded the French press some considerable mileage.

Bejo is such a revelation in The Artist that the film could well make her the next transatlantic crossover star à la Marion Cotillard. Indeed, the initials "BB" have tended to bode well for French actresses. Not that Bejo could plausibly be described as a new Bardot: despite her vampy simmering in Cairo Nest of Spies, her big selling point in The Artist is her 1920s-style flapper freshness, her French impersonation of all-American vim, mixing bygone screen goddesses such as Joan Crawford and Clara Bow with the sweet-as-pie candour of Debbie Reynolds.

The Artist trio have been on the interview circuit since Cannes, and when they came to London recently, it was easy to see who was most experienced at the promo game. Dujardin, a big name in France since his successful TV series Un Gars, Une Fille (A Guy, A Girl) some 10 years ago – stretches himself expansively on a sofa at Claridge's, arms spread, flashing a square-jawed grin and casually dispensing actorly quotes that sound as though they have a bit of mileage on them: "I put a lot of myself into my parts, but I always get off scot-free, because I'm acting. Cinema's simply people filming other people. It's not about exposing your soul."

Down the corridor, Hazanavicius – bearded, bespectacled, with a solemn husky voice – comes across more as a learned film historian than the sort of omnivorous movie geek (the school of Tarantino or Edgar Wright) we're used to in Anglophone cinema. "When I look at all those fabulous films of the 1920s, I realise that it's the melodramas that have really lasted. Even Charlie Chaplin's films were melodramas, even if they have comic touches."

Meanwhile, in another room, Bérénice Bejo perches alertly on the edge of her sofa, hands clasped together, enthusing in French about The Artist, not with the practised style of an actress selling a product but with the keenness of someone who's lived with the film step by step, day by day since its inception. And she has lived with it that long – or at least, since she got together with its writer-director, whom she first met on OSS 117. I ask if their relationship began during the shoot. "You're very curious, aren't you?" Bejo scolds, mock-primly. "No, it was later – a lot later, in fact."

Bejo seems anything but weary of discussing The Artist. Maybe it's because only a few weeks earlier, she gave birth to her and Hazanavicius's second child Gloria, and she's just happy to be out talking to adults. Hair pinned back and vaguely resembling a less pouty version of the young Emmanuelle Béart, Bejo tells me that Hazanavicius had dreamt of making a silent film for 20 years. "He sees it as the ultimate form of directing, as everything depends on the direction – you can't convey any information with dialogue, so it's all down to the image. He talked about it when we were making OSS, and he carried on talking about it, and after the two OSS films were hits, he said, 'OK, now I'm a bit bancabole,' as we say in France..." (I look puzzled. "Bankable," she explains) "...so now's the time to do it."

Hazanavicius, Bejo confirms, is not only an obsessive movie-watcher, but a fiend for cinema lore and technique, relentlessly studying biographies and screenwriting manuals. "When he's preparing, he watches good films and bad ones. He says good films are useless, because when they're good you know they're good but you don't know why – but you always know why bad films are bad. It's by watching bad films that you learn how to make good ones. He studies art, he draws, he understands colours, composition..." Bejo gives a radiant smile. "Anyway, I think he's utterly brilliant."

She remembers her first impression of the director on the set of OSS. "It was love at first sight – professionally, at first. After a day on set, Jean and I would go off and talk about Michel, saying, 'Wow, what a director.'"

Not everyone could live with an obsessive film fiend, and Hazanavicius is perhaps an extreme case – even in France, where you can go to a Paris revival of a half-forgotten 1930s Hollywood comedy and find queues round the block on a Thursday afternoon. Fortunately, Bejo seems to be as devoted to celluloid as her partner. "My parents were cinephiles, so I grew up with that." (Her father Miguel was a director.) "I've never turned on a TV in my life. I started out watching Westerns, musicals, Italian and American films, you name it."

Bejo and Hazanavicius have some favourites in common: Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Anthony Mann's Westerns and, of all things, The Way We Were. They don't agree about everything: he likes Dumb & Dumber, she prefers Ingmar Bergman. But she also came to share his love of Adam Sandler comedies – and there's no greater love than that.

In Bejo's turn as The Artist's rising star Peppy Miller, the character's sunny persona seems to reflect the actress's own wide-awake personality. As Hazanavicius puts it, "Bérénice has this sort of goodness which means that the moment you see Peppy in the film, you know she's going to be a star. She has something of that in real life – everyone loves Bérénice. Everyone. She radiates something very positive."

But equally, Peppy is a jigsaw construction of period stars, comprising a whole repertoire of their looks and gestures. The same goes for Dujardin's character, for which the actor mixes his own goonish mock-machismo with borrowings from the greats – as he puts it, a combination of "Douglas Fairbanks' playfulness, Gene Kelly's smiles, Clark Gable's moustache, and [Italian actor] Vittorio Gassman's body language. And a bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo."

While Dujardin says he simply drew on everything he'd absorbed during 20 years of film-going, for Bejo it was more a question of deliberate study, immersing herself in the performing styles of vintage stars – Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor and musical star Eleanor Powell, who inspired Bejo for her dance numbers: "She was Fred Astaire's favourite dance partner – le top du top." The challenge, says Bejo, "was creating a character, rather than trying to represent several different people. One thing I knew – Peppy had to have du peps." (Or, as we say in English, joie de vivre.) "She had to be adorable, men and women had to love her right away and want her to be a star."

Joan Crawford was a favourite – "but when she was in her twenties. She had a sensuality you don't see today. In Grand Hotel, she has a scene with... I've forgotten his name, a sublime actor..." (John Barrymore, in fact), "where he's behind her and she's just looking at him out of the corner of her eye, laughing and smoking her cigarette..." Bejo makes vamp eyes over an invisible cigarette holder. "I thought, 'That's wonderful – now I have to figure out exactly why.' And then it finds its way into my unconscious."

Acting in retro style is harder for women, Bejo contends. "For a woman, everything's hyper-charged with meaning. A man can put on a suit, walk on with his hands in his pockets and look good and that's enough. For women, there's a whole set of gestures to learn – whistling, winking, blowing kisses."

Although it's an entirely French production, The Artist was shot in Los Angeles, around the remaining holy sites of the Golden Age industry – including the offices that once belonged to Frank Capra and Columbia boss Harry Cohn, and the house of Mary Pickford. The old Hollywood geography, says Bejo, "doesn't really exist any more. Even Charlie Chaplin's studio – you can still walk past it, but it was bought by someone or other." (Most recently, it's been home to Henson Productions, the front gate decorated with a statue of Kermit the Frog dressed as the Little Tramp.) "But there's still a certain charm, even if Sunset Boulevard's covered in neon. And we still shot in the old studios. When I walked through the gates of Warner or Paramount, I knew I was entering the world of cinema."

The Artist raises the ghosts of Tinseltown to uncanny effect, but also with a sincerity that's utterly disarming. Executed with rapturous fondness for the period, it's far more than a conceptual film-buff project – although Hazanavicius can wax theoretical about it. "The directors of the 1920s weren't making silent films – they were just making films. So I had to be aware of the fact that I was addressing people who knew I was making a silent film – and that they knew I knew I was making a silent film."

Hazanavicius's previous work, though equally film-buffy, was in a much broader vein. Working as a TV-comedy director, he made his mark by stitching together old Hollywood footage and dubbing it incongruously in French. Francophones in search of a good time should go online for his extraordinary La Classe Américaine (American Class, 1993) in which Dustin Hoffman, James Stewart, Dean Martin et al are corralled into a farce about a man's mysterious dying words – and if you think that sounds familiar, Orson Welles turns up to complain that the film has plagiarised Citizen Kane.

That was followed by the OSS 117 films, which use their hair-raisingly reactionary hero to score satirical points about the worst of the French worldview. These spoofs are droll but more or less one-joke, and the extreme stylishness feels almost surplus to requirement. In The Artist, however, Hazanavicius has made a massive advance, into an area where borrowed style becomes both technically sublime and fabulously expressive. How does he explain the leap?

"What made the difference for me," he says, "was to lose the irony. I like the OSS films, but they took irony to the limit – 'Look how smart I am.'" He imagines viewers puzzling over the comedies: "'OK, you're not this, you're not that – so what are you really?' It's rather frustrating. But what I've done with The Artist is something very fragile – more moving and a lot more cinematic. I've put technique to the service of something simpler and more direct."

The bottom line, he says, was that The Artist had to be sincere – pastiche rather than parody, without the post-modern complicit winks on which OSS 117 depended. "There's no sarcasm in the film," Hazanavicius says. And the film needed to be entertaining. "It's a matter of courtesy – right from the start, I knew that if people came to see a French silent film in black and white, I had to give them a good time. You can see that it's very rigorous film-making – but at the same time, it's very upbeat, a bit naïve and innocent, just like the cinema it draws on."

As is often the case, a film that looks set to conquer the world was made altogether against the odds, financiers refusing to believe there was any mileage in Hazanavicius's vision. "We went to see producers and TV channels to try to convert them," recalls Dujardin, "and they all needed reassurance: 'A silent film, OK – but can you make it in colour?'; ' I love the script, but I wouldn't go and see it myself.' Everyone was looking at Michel sideways: 'It's a joke, right? He's just trying to make an impression.'"

Hazanavicius has certainly made an impression now – don't be surprised if The Artist gleans the benefits during the awards season, especially backed by the formidable heft of the Weinstein Company. On this point, Bérénice Bejo has no false modesty. "When Harvey takes on a film, you know he'll do all he can to take it to the Oscars – and why not? This is a film which absolutely belongs in the Oscar nominations – it's out of the ordinary and it has a director with a point of view entirely his own."

Why not indeed? The Artist has something for everyone – you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll love the dog, you'll spot the movie references, or some of them. Most of all, it has du peps. It truly is le top du top.

'The Artist' (PG) is released on 30 December