JEAN DUJARDIN has sung in a fictitious boy band, played a megalomaniac surfer and parodied James Bond. In other words, he’s known for lowbrow humor that often leads to outsize box-office totals. So when this French comic actor won this prestigious best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it’s safe to say that jaws dropped.
At a festival dominated by news of “The Tree of Life” and “Melancholia,” few critics would have predicted that a comedian could win a prize and the international recognition that went with it. Mr. Dujardin’s imitations and spoofs, while memorable, do not match the traditional criteria of the Cannes jury, which typically favors performances in social dramas and tragedies.
But Mr. Dujardin’s turn in “The Artist” as George Valentin, a suave lighthearted star of Hollywood silent pictures who falls into depression and oblivion after the rise of talkies, doesn’t fit neatly into any categories, nor does the movie, a largely dialogueless black-and-white homage to early films.
Reviews from Cannes were effusive. Calling the movie “a surefire crowd pleaser and a magnificent piece of filmmaking,” Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent in Britain, heaped praise on its lead: “Dujardin’s performance is a revelation. He has the carefree quality and the athleticism of a Fairbanks in his pomp.” The Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan charted the film’s rise from underdog to festival darling, concluding, “The Oscar drums have started to beat louder.”
But as Cannes was unfolding, Mr. Dujardin, one of the best-paid stars of French cinema, was racked with anxiety about his chances on the day of the ceremony, he admitted in a recent interview. That may have accounted for his reaction to his win. A beaming Mr. Dujardin knelt at the foot of Robert De Niro, the jury president, performed a brief shuffle step, cursed in excitement, apologized and concluded his acceptance speech with, “Now I’m going to shut up, because apparently it works pretty well for me.”
“I didn’t want to go,” Mr. Dujardin recalled in the interview, sipping coffee at a hipster hangout in the bustling Ninth Arrondissement. Mr. Dujardin, in jeans and meticulous stubble, was outspoken and easygoing in person, willing to admit, “I felt relieved because people didn’t know me and had judged me only on my performance.”
The film, set for release in the United States on Nov. 25, was directed by Michel Hazanavicius and is intended to be shown in the 1:33 aspect ratio — that is, the format of silent movies, not the widescreen ratio prevalent today.
In a statement Mr. Hazanavicius said that he enjoyed working with Mr. Dujardin because his facial expressions and body language “fit into close-ups as well as into wide shots.”
“Few actors are good in both,” Mr. Hazanavicius added.
For the role Mr. Dujardin, who doesn’t speak English and had visited the United States only a few times before, lived in Hollywood for three months (the film was shot at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank) wore a thin mustache to resemble Clark Gable and learned shuffle steps. He watched countless old silents to decipher their secrets, including many featuring, yes, Douglas Fairbanks. “I realized that dialogues were a burden,” he said. “What I could say with my body I didn’t need to express it by talking.”
Perhaps more surprising, he was also inspired by the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman’s manipulative playboy in “The Easy Life” (1962) and his caricatures in “I Mostri” (1963), a satire of Italian society. “In both movies Gassman completely fills the room,” Mr. Dujardin said. “And I needed to fill the room.”
But here Mr. Dujardin is often described as the incarnation of French humor, known for some of the funniest punch lines of contemporary cinema. With similar charm and reliance on body language he has been compared to the movie legend Jean-Paul Belmondo, with whom he performed in 2008 in “A Man and His Dog.”
Born in a Parisian suburb in 1972, he is the youngest of four brothers in a middle-class family. Mr. Dujardin studied drawing and worked as a locksmith “to make ends meet,” he said, then took up acting at 24, inventing spoofs and characters and performing at bars and cabarets. “I impersonated, poked fun and entertained myself,” he said. “I had the impression that I had done this all my life.”
His brother Marc, a lawyer who is also Mr. Dujardin’s occasional agent, remembered him as “a practical joker who amused even his own family.”
Marc Dujardin added, “We were caught by surprise when we learned that he was nominated for Cannes.”
In 1998 Jean Dujardin’s performance as one of the members of a parody boy-band called Nous C Nous (Us Is Us) met with modest success. But his regular turn in a daily six-minute TV spot called “Un Gars, Une Fille,” about a couple (including his real-life wife, Alexandra Lamy) confronted with the humdrum of married life, introduced his cheeky sense of humor and expressive face to millions of viewers.
Mr. Dujardin became known for clumsy, self-satisfied, egomaniacal losers. In the 2005 movie “Brice de Nice” (“The Brice Man”), which drew about four million French viewers to the theaters (making it the most-seen movie of the year here), Mr. Dujardin was an arrogant surfer who tells an attractive, rather underdressed young woman, “Do you know how physically intelligent you are?”
In 2006 he won considerable praise for his clumsy nonchalant agent in Mr. Hazanavicius’s “OSS 177,” a series of spoofs inspired by French spy novels. That earned him a best actor nomination at the Césars, the French film awards.
“Over the years,” Mr. Dujardin said, “my characters made me look better, even more interesting.” But he also admitted that it took years to stray from parts that fit his sense of humor and energy to more serious efforts. With rare exceptions French actors who make their names in comedy rarely switch genres.
When he did stretch, with characters like Octave, a cynical advertising designer in Jan Kounen’s “99 Francs” (2007) or the lonely alcoholic in Bertrand Blier’s “Clink of Ice” (2010), Mr. Dujardin drew good reviews but smaller audiences.
Mr. Blier said it was hard for Mr. Dujardin to play a type of character “he had never performed until now.” Mr. Kounen was kinder, saying that he had picked one of the rare actors in France “able to play an arrogant idiot who can inspire love.”
Mr. Dujardin views his career with an almost childlike detachment. “Each movie is a new movie,” he said, “and each movie is a new bet.”
By Maia De La Baume