Jean Dujardin is the kind of man most other men want to hate yet find hard not to like. As if being tall, dark and handsome weren't bad enough, there's the extraordinary talent that has made him France's best-paid actor. Now the 39-year-old Frenchman is drawing international acclaim with his new silent movie, The Artist, which American critics cite as a probable Oscar nominee. Most infuriatingly of all, Dujardin comes off in real life as a modest, down-to-earth guy, given to bouts of unaffected self-deprecation. It makes would-be antagonists want to buddy up. How do you begrudge a star who takes neither himself nor his dream job too seriously?
"I'm happy just trying to make movies people will enjoy," says Dujardin. "I don't have any fantasies about conquering the American market. I'm happy with the work and life I have in France."
If that's the case, Hollywood may just have to go and seek him out, especially now that Oscar predictions for The Artist are multiplying with its selection last month as Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle. Since its premiere at Cannes (where it won Dujardin the Best Actor award), The Artist has met with a resounding response from critics and viewers perhaps surprisingly, given the fondness of modern audiences for special effects and star-studded casts. By turns funny and touching, this black-and-white, dialogue-free film traces the fall of vain, complacent silent-movie star George Valentin and the rising fortunes of his young actress lover whose career blossoms with the advent of talkies. It has few pyrotechnics beyond the tap routines Dujardin and co-star Bérénice Bejo had to learn on the fly.
"It isn't Avatar," Dujardin jokes, pointing out that the film is all the more powerful for it. "Without dialogue, without bright colors, without special effects coming at them from all sides, audiences have the time and space to project themselves into the movie more than they otherwise would."
A native of Paris, Dujardin initially established himself as a comic first in clubs and on television, and later in cinema. In 2005 he struck it big playing a smarts-challenged surfer in Brice de Nice, a major French hit that drew around 4.5 million people. He followed that up with two popular comedies featuring the chic but ridiculous Gaullist-era secret agent OSS 117, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. (The first co-starred Bejo; both were shot by The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius.) He also branched into dramatic roles, depicting a revenge-bent cop looking into his daughter's murder in Counter-Investigation. In Bertrand Blier's The Clink of Ice, he gave a moving portrait of an alcoholic author confronting the incarnation of his cancer, played by Albert Dupontel. Now he is set to co-star with Cécile de France in the romantic thriller Mobius.
The success of The Artist likely means that Dujardin will be able to work wherever he chooses (his English is passable). But the actor says he'll always prefer making comedies like the OSS 117 films ones that "don't really work outside France," because they depend on "French crowds laughing at themselves." France, he says, "doesn't really have the same tradition of self-derision that American and English cultures have, and the success of these movies is in getting the French laughing at France and all its peculiarities." It's a statement that reveals the measure of the man. After all, if you can achieve the stupendous task of getting the French to take themselves less seriously, is there anything you can't do?