The world of cinema discovered Jean Dujardin, the former stand-up comedian, when he appeared as George Valentin in The Artist, the black-and-white film in which director Michel Hazanavicius recaptured the charm of Hollywood’s silent era before it capitulated to the talkies. With his eloquent silence, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, one among a host of statuettes he collected for that role.
If that film often left audiences speechless, Dujardin is never at a loss for words in his latest cinematic endeavour, another character established in the milieu of films. Except this time, he plays a wisecracking composer who arrives in India to score an independent film. That film is Un + Une or One Plus One, a project that commenced with a journey, somewhat fittingly, since the character he portrays travels quite a distance in the film itself.
Dujardin was flying from Paris to Los Angeles when he found himself seated next to award-winning French actress Elsa Zylberstein. As Zylberstein said in an interview in a hotel suite in downtown Toronto, a few blocks from where the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, “We ended up sitting side by side and talking about cinema and what we wanted to do. We dreamt about doing a film together and very quickly we ended up talking about Claude Lelouch.”
Lelouch, of course, is a celebrated French director, winner of two Oscars, with over 40 films to his credit. After they landed in LA, she called Lelouch and the project proceeded. “It is the first time the actors chose me,” Lelouch said in an interview, “usually it’s the contrary. It brought me great joy that two actors would like to use my methods.”
At 76, Lelouch was creating a very modern romance where India emerges as a “key character”. “I love India like I love women,” he says. “I love that India with its flaws and with its qualities. I also love the fertility of the chaos you find there. There is a big mess which is remarkable, truly. It is made for cinema.”
Dujardin’s Antoine Abeilard is a roue, one who picks up a new girlfriend, a pianist, at a Paris commuter station after he misses a train for an encounter with another woman. Later in the film, even as he flirts with Anna Hamon, wife of the French ambassador to India (and Zylberstein’s role) at a restaurant, he can’t resist stealing glances with another woman, in this case Kalki Koechlin playing herself in a cameo. Anna, meanwhile, is confused. Though she loves her husband, the quirky diplomat Samuel Hamon (Christophe Lambert), she is irresistibly drawn to Antoine. And he may actually have, quite literally, met his match.
As she leaves on a spiritual journey, Antoine joins her on the trip that ends up encompassing buses, trains, planes, even a boat ride through India. As Lelouch thoughtfully said, “Life is a journey, so I wanted the two characters to discover themselves through this journey. If that journey had happened in France, there would not have been this story. Their story is fed from the country. These two would not have fallen in love with each other in France. In India, you’re obligated to look at each other.” Dujardin agreed with that premise: “The pawns were set: a naughty man and a woman who will become naughty. And then came the great idea of India. Travelling made possible the kind of romance that belongs in Claude’s world.” In many ways, this is a movie in which emotions are constantly in motion.
That journey is often spiritual in nature, as with Anna immersing herself in the Ganga at Allahabad. That prospect, however, initially appalled Zylberstein. Dujardin suggested she wear a wet suit for the scene (just as his character discusses the level of pollutants in the river). But Lelouch dissuaded her. “He said, ‘This is not your shape, what are you doing? Nothing’s going to happen to you’.” Zylberstein took the dip, and one take sufficed for that pivotal scene. Perhaps what will surprise most is the key role played by Kerala’s hugging godwoman Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, although played isn’t quite the word since, Lelouch explained, she was just being herself, embracing those coming for her darshan, unaware of who were the actors and who weren’t.
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Dujardin rollicks through the film; whether clasping a fellow state transport bus passenger or tickling the feet of another traveller in a second-class compartment. “He is a Stradivarius,” Lelouch said of him, “an acrobatic clown. He doesn’t take life seriously. For him, life is like a joke, but working with me, he started thinking maybe life is a joke that needs to be taken seriously. We had a lot of fun working together. As you know, he has specialised in laughter but when a clown stops laughing and the emotions come through, this is what’s the most beautiful thing.”
The veteran and celebrated director, obviously, has an admirer in Dujardin as the genesis of the project proves. “I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of a carefree attitude,” says the actor. “This film has brought me back to point zero of this job, where I should be.”
Un + Une may take a while to get to you. Opening initially in Europe this December, it is likely to travel to North American theatres next. Even as the filmmakers are fixated on finding it screens in India despite it being in French, that will take it into a 2016 release. But it’s a lavish presentation, one that tries to simulate the chaotic backdrop of India, its visual vibgyor. “This movie was imagined for the cinema, to bring cinematic emotions, on a big screen, with the real India, and not postcards,” says Dujardin. “It shows a true India, with a story, emotions, feelings, where we have the time to settle down. It’s a cinema film. And that has become a rarity!” India provides the expansive canvas that houses the circus which allows the clown to express himself, even if quite volubly in this instance.
By Aniruddha Bhattacharyya in Toronto