TORONTO—For his follow-up to 2012 Oscar winner and silent comedy tribute “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius chose to explore much darker territory: the horrific atrocities of the Second Chechen War.
In “The Search,” which screens Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, Berenice Bejo stars as a European Union employee who strikes up an unlikely bond with a nine-year-old orphaned boy. Meanwhile, a young man forced to join the Russian army slowly loses his humanity.
Hazanavicius said in an interview that after the wild, unexpected success of “The Artist,” he wanted to be challenged by something different.
“I am a normal human being. Like everybody, you like to laugh, and sometimes you feel sharp and sometimes you have patience and sometimes you feel sad. You have a lot of feelings,” he said.
“I don’t feel that I have to do always the same movie. I love comedies, and I think it’s a very noble genre, and I will be very happy to make other comedies. But this is a movie I wanted to make and I’m very proud of it.”
The French director said he had long wanted to make a film about the Chechen conflict, even before he directed “The Artist.” But the story began to take shape in his mind only after he saw the 1948 Montgomery Clift film “The Search,” from which his movie is freely inspired.
Bejo, who is married to Hazanavicius and charmed audiences as Peppy Miller in “The Artist,” said she was proud of her husband for focusing on “The Search” after taking home trophies for Best Picture and Best Director.
“After the Oscar, he had a few propositions and he (stuck to) his project. He went on with this one and it was not the easiest one to do,” she said.
“So I was proud. I think as an artist you’re happy to be able to do movies that sometimes talk about something that actually happened, and to in a way take a position about something that actually happened. If you want to do it and you actually have the power to do it, I think it’s really good to do it.”
The couple met while filming “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and have two children together. Bejo, who was born in Argentina but grew up in France, said there was never any question she would take the central role in “The Search.”
“He (started) writing and he said to me, ‘It’s going to be you,”‘ she said. “Of course, if I feel like the character is not right for me, I would tell him. But he knows me good enough that when he’s asking me to do a role it’s because I can do it.”
She admitted to being a bit daunted by her character, whose attempts to communicate are often met with silence: either by the little boy she shelters, who is so traumatized he cannot speak, or by her government employers, who fail to pay attention to the ongoing atrocities.
It’s a twist of irony after silent film “The Artist,” in which her co-star Jean Dujardin got to utter the only line of dialogue.
“(In ‘The Search’) I’m always talking, talking, and nobody’s ever answering me,” said Bejo with a sigh. “But I like the fact that she’s starting with this global point of view of Chechnya and then she ends up being caught with this boy, and then her point of view becomes more personal. Then we can finally see what kind of woman she is.”
Asked why the husband-and-wife team enjoy working together, Bejo is quick to respond.
“He’s so funny,” she said. “He’s a good director. It sounds obvious, but it works. Why shouldn’t we work together if we can?”
The Toronto International Film Festival wraps Sunday.