- - Thursday, February 23, 2012

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.

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.”

But despite this veiled craving of recognition from a rival film power, some remain reluctant to fully embrace “The Artist” as part of the French oeuvre. Unlike 2009’s “La Vie en Rose” — the only recent export to receive comparable U.S. attention — “The Artist” isn’t quite a truly French movie. It may feature a predominantly French cast and production team, but it includes not a single word of French, either spoken or intertitled. Rather than pay homage to an icon of Gallic culture, as “La Vie en Rose” did to Edith Piaf, “The Artist” waxes nostalgic about a studio system to which France’s most storied filmmakers traditionally have been opposed.

Indeed, it sometimes seems as if French naysayers take issue with “The Artist’s” American success not because of the film itself but because of a lingering distrust of the Hollywood machine.

“‘The Artist’ at the Oscars is no longer [a matter of] cinema,” writes Aurelien Ferenczi of Telerama, a French arts-and-entertainment magazine. “It’s sport.”

Mr. Hazanavicius, for his part, has brushed aside the very notion of a Paris-Hollywood divide, calling it “a very incestuous relationship” in a recent interview. He acknowledged, however, that his feelings are atypical: “I am unusual for a Frenchman — I have absolutely nothing against the United States. French people are strange about America, I think.”

It remains to be seen whether a gold statuette can contribute to a lasting softening of French attitudes, but regardless of how Sunday’s ceremony unfolds, one thing is all but guaranteed: The French, unlike “The Artist,” will not be silent.

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