Talking Film History with Bérénice Bejo

Last week, we had the pleasure of chatting with Bérénice Bejo, Argentinean/French actress who stars as Peppy Miller in the new Weinstein Company release The Artist. Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, has been busy garnering attention and acclaim. The Artist pays homage to a very specific era in film history-the transition in Hollywood to sound motion picture production that occurred in the late 1920s. The film is black and white and mostly a silent film.  The story begins in 1927 as Peppy begins her Hollywood career as an extra and dancer. She enchants George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), a famous star, at the premiere of his latest film. The Artist presents the challenges that actors faced during the silent to sound transition in a charming and engaging way.

While Bérénice’s latest project is about filmmaking 90 years ago, we were excited to talk to her about her role in another film, which Flicker Alley distributes, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno. Inferno, a documentary, focuses on film history from a different decade-Clouzot’s ill-fated 1964 production of L’enfer. Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, the film illustrates why L’enfer was never fully realized through interviews with crew members, original production footage and screen tests shot by Clouzot, and readings from Clouzot’s script with Bejo and Jacques Gamblin in the roles originally played by Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani.

We talk to Bérénice about her roles in both Inferno and The Artist. 

Inferno

Bejo with Jacques Gamblin in “Inferno”

Flicker Alley: Why do you think the original production of Inferno was a significant/unique project? What was your interest in working on it?

Bérénice Bejo: The story of the production of Clouzot’s L’enfer [Inferno] was fascinating to me. As someone who works in the entertainment business, it’s always interesting to see how films are made or how projects remain incomplete.

Serge Bromberg [the director] is an amazing person. I also could not pass up the opportunity to work with good quality directors and actors. I also very much admire Romy Schneider. I was interested in the project, especially after watching her screen tests. Romy is beautiful, touching, and strong. Young actresses in France still often look up to her. I would compare her to Gena Rowlands. Both have the same emotionally intense acting.

Inferno

Poster art for “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno”

Flicker Alley: Were you able to see the Clouzot’s footage before you shot your scenes?

Bérénice: Yes, I’ve seen so much of the original footage, including auditions with various costumes and many of test shoots by Clouzot. Clouzot did so many tests – he was so crazy!

A week before Serge [Bromberg] called me about the film, I was talking about Clouzot’s other lead, Serge Reggiani, at a party with some friends. We were discussing how in spite of his success as a musical artist, he was “the black cat of French cinema,” bringing bad luck to many of the productions he was involved with. So, it was fascinating to also watch his scenes.

Flicker Alley: What was the most surprising revelation upon seeing your scenes and the original footage combined?

Bérénice: It was difficult the first time to see the new scenes, which are so modern, combined with the beautiful, older ones, but the second time I watched the scenes, I was completely into it and accepted the idea. From the beginning, I said there is no way I can act the scenes in a way that would compare to Romy, so I always tightly clutched the scripts in the scenes, in a way to make it clear that I didn’t want the audience to compare my acting to hers. I think the audience does not judge, the new scenes allow them to understand and comprehend the story.

 Flicker Alley: Do you feel that your character Odette was an innocent, the victim of her husband Marcel’s demons of jealousy, or was she cheating on him?

Bérénice: I think she’s a victim. Her husband was totally crazy and jealous. He needs to see a doctor quickly! That is just my opinion, of course.

Flicker Alley: Inferno dealt with a project made 45 years ago, The Artist deals with an era of filmmaking 90 years ago.  Was there any kind of connection regarding your interest in the two projects?

Bérénice: No, connection. The project just came along. Michel [Hazanavicius] is my partner, and I inspired the character in a way. I am very lucky and received a great part!

Flicker Alley: How is acting for a silent film different from other films you’ve worked on?

Bérénice: The acting isn’t different. I didn’t focus on the fact that it was silent. Rather, I focused on the character herself – a woman who wants to work in the movie business and then becomes a big star. I tried to focus mostly on the character, portraying an American woman who becomes and actress.

In the 1930s, the way of acting for film was maybe more intense. The American way of acting is bigger than the French acting. I’m Argentinean; I love to act with my hands, so I tried to trust my body language to portray that “Golden Age of Hollywood-way of acting.”

Peppy Miller

Bejo as Peppy Miller in “The Artist”

Flicker Alley: Do you have a favorite silent film, genre, or director?

Bérénice: I love the late silent works of Murnau and Borzage. My favorite films are Sunrise (1927), City Girl (1930), andSeventh Heaven (1927).

Flicker Alley: Where there any silent film actors or works that you consulted in preparing for your role as Peppy Miller in The Artist? 

joan crawford

A young Joan Crawford

Bérénice: I really like Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. I didn’t really look specifically at many silent film stars for this role. I focused more generally on stars and stories from the classic Hollywood era.

I was interested in Joan Crawford, in particular, when she was 25 and started as a flapper. I also read the biography of Gloria Swanson (who was amazing), which made me understand how a studio could take a little girl and make her into a star and how the studios created personas.

 Flicker Alley: What’s next for you?

Bérénice: I will be in two French movies. Since Cannes, I have been reading a lot of scripts, working, and raising a family.

Thanks again to Bérénice for graciously taking the time to speak with us! The Artist arrives in U.S. theaters on November 25.

For more information about Inferno, click here.

10.11.2011