Facade of French disdain falters in Oscar hoopla over ‘The Artist’

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PARIS — The cultural standoff is a familiar one. In one corner looms a muscle-bound America, clad in golden-arch-embroidered robes and Coca-Cola regalia. In the other, nursing a thin, filterless cigarette, sits France, sipping an espresso and ignoring its trans-Atlantic frenemy with almost haughty indifference — or at least that’s what the French want Americans to think.

However, their mounting anticipation of Sunday’s Oscar awards — they have some peau in the game this year — tells a different story.

With “The Artist” poised as the favorite to take home the best-picture award, the famously blase French public’s pose of studied aloofness from U.S. opinion is wobbling. News of the black-and-white silent film’s triumphant march through the American movie-awards season has swept across newspapers, magazines and blogs here, alongside generally positive reviews and commensurate box-office returns. If the film, nominated for 10 Oscars, takes the top prize Sunday, it would become the first French film ever to do so.

This prospect alone has caused quite a stir in France, where cinema, known here as the “seventh art,” is still treated with reverence. The land of the Gauls, after all, is the very birthplace of film — just ask them — and over the past decades it has evolved into a bastion of art-house cinema, placing it in stark contrast with Hollywood’s commercially driven studio system.

Today, of course, the line separating Hollywood from Paris has blurred somewhat — American films actually made up 46 percent of all French box-office grosses in 2011 — but rarely, if ever, have the French media devoted as much attention to the Oscars as they have this year. Then again, “The Artist” is something of a rare bird.

Jean Dujardin, the lead actor in the best-picture-nominated "The Artist," has himself garnered one of the film's 10 Oscar nominations, as best actor. (The Weinstein Co. photographs via Associated Press)

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Jean Dujardin, the lead actor in the best-picture-nominated “The Artist,” has himself ... more >

It all began back in May, when the movie and its director, Michel Hazanavicius, were greeted with standing ovations and a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. By the time it hit theaters, “The Artist” already had enough steam to rake in more than $3.3 million in its opening weekend.

But the media circus began in earnest at the dawn of the new year, when the film won the Golden Globe for best picture (comedy or musical) along with a best-actor award for Jean Dujardin.

“The American Dream” is how the influential daily Le Monde described the achievement, calling it an “unprecedented triumph,” while its right-of-center counterpart Le Figaro went with a more succinct, all-caps “BRAVO, L’ARTISTE!”

The French daily 20 Minutes had notably more difficulty hiding its bias, offering curious explanations for the few categories in which “The Artist” didn’t win. According to the paper, actress Berenice Bejo only lost the best-supporting-actress award to “The Help’s” Octavia Spencer, a black American, because the ceremony was held on the eve of Martin Luther King Day.

Things reached fever pitch a month ago with the news that “The Artist” had netted a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, an unprecedented feat for French cinema. What seemed like a long-shot in October — the best-picture Oscar — now looks more likely by the day, especially in light of the film’s victories at this month’s BAFTA awards in the United Kingdom. While anticipation in advance of Sunday night’s finale is palpable here in Paris, so too is a pervasive sense of trepidation.

These are, after all, relatively uncharted waters for French moviegoers and journalists alike. Last month, the film’s leading cast members appeared on “20 Heures,” a prime-time national talk show, where they spent a considerable amount of time explaining the wide-ranging promotional campaign they conducted in the U.S. — something unheard of in France, where the country’s Oscar-equivalent Cesar awards traditionally are determined behind closed doors, largely insulated from corporate politicking.

Of course, it wouldn’t be France if the prevailing feeling of cautious optimism wasn’t laced with some healthy cynicism. Le Nouvel Observateur, a weekly magazine, recently wondered if the film would win best picture simply because “Americans don’t realize it’s a French film.”

Le Figaro, meanwhile, worried whether “all the buzz around a small French film has started to annoy” Hollywood’s hierarchy. Others expressed alarm that Kim Novak may even sabotage the movie’s chances following her disparagement of its score. The newsweekly L’Express fretted that a traditionalist American media and image-conscious Tinseltown could sour on Mr. Dujardin, the lead actor, after he appeared in a series of racy film posters.

Underpinning much of this speculation is a nationalist, mostly unacknowledged, ambition to conquer the Great American Frontier. After being anointed GQ France’s Man of the Year, for example, Mr. Dujardin appeared on a magazine cover hailing him as “the artist [who] bluffed Hollywood.”

“Oscars for French films are very important because they’re rare and it’s considered the highest form of praise from the enemy,” critic and film historian Antoine de Baecque told the Guardian. “It’s as if Hollywood — always considered a powerful rival to French culture, which is still very anti-American and auteurlike — is recognizing the importance of French cinema.”

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