Why 'The Artist' Heralds a Golden Age in French Cinema (Analysis)

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Peter Iovino/The Weinstein Co.

French star Berenice Bejo's Jazz Age-wardrobe for "The Artist" -- which has been garnering Oscar talk since Cannes -- is right in step with what the fashion world is sending down runways.

This year's César award nominations are proof that France's "7th Art" is healthy both at home and abroad.

France has always placed its “seventh art” form on a pedestal and, for the most part, kept it in a glass case, like a sculpture in a museum to be visited by the rest of the world, but never touched. Now, however, French cinema is more relevant than ever as The Artist paints a new picture of the country’s thriving film biz.

Ticket sales have never been higher in France – a record 215.59 tickets were sold, the most in 45 years – and, even more surprising, these titles are actually attracting audiences abroad as well. Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s Untouchable is at the top of the German box office and has sold more than 2 million tickets. Last year, French films made $519 million at the international box office, a 19 percent jump in revenue from the year before. None of these figures are surprising to anyone who has seen this year’s crop of films since, to put it simply, they’re good.

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Finally, French filmmakers are using their artistic freedom and story-telling savvy to make films that appeal not only to themselves and their inner circles, but also to audiences across the globe. Finally, “auteur” and “commercial” are no longer mutually exclusive terms in the French language. In 2009, Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose planted the seeds for French cinema to flourish abroad. Now, just a few years later, instead of simply exporting Gaul’s prettiest faces (think: Marion Cotillard) or hottest talents (think: your favorite French Alexandre –  Desplat or Aja), Hollywood’s finest are starting to look to French shores with a closer eye.  Harvey Weinstein has enjoyed a recent shopping spree for French titles that has proved to be haute couture already as The Artist continues its silent but deadly conquest of Hollywood’s awards season and Untouchable prepares for a US release and remake. 

What’s interesting about The Artist is that, until stars Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and director Michel Hazanavicius spoke on stage at recent awards ceremonies, most audiences may not have even realized the films were French. In fact, Colombiana, Unknown, Carnage and The Three Musketeers are also French-made titles disguised as U.S. blockbusters.

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Not only have French films traveled well, but the country is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign production. Look at this year’s Oscar nominees. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Roman Polanski’s Carnage and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris were all filmed in France.

More and more French producers are looking to make English-language titles and are finding it easier to find U.S. partners who are now starting to see French-made fare as bankable.

This correspondent’s typical short list of the year's best films is predominately filled with US titles with the occasional worthy French title thrown in. This year, however, is quite the contrary. Poliss, Untouchable, The Artist and Valerie Donzelli’s Declaration of War are some of the best films from any continent in 2011.

Unlike past years, many non-residents of France are familiar with this year’s crop of films because most of them premiered at this year’s Festival de Cannes and have been generating positive buzz ever since. 

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In fact, Friday's Cesar press conference in Paris was almost a deja vu of May's Cannes fest with six out of the seven titles vying for Best Film originally premiering in Cannes. Dujardin won the best actor prize at the festival and Maiwenn's Poliss took the jury prize there. Not to mention, these films already almost all have English-language international titles, also a sign of a globalization of France’s seventh art.

However, with The Artist all the rage abroad, the question remains: will French Academy voters prefer to honor the year’s other notable titles at home and let The Artist brush through the rest of the world?

France’s Academy voters love to vote for the underdog. They call it the French “cultural exception.” The more obscure and esoteric the title, the more likely that it will win the Cesar or other awards. (See: last year’s Louis Delluc prize for best French film of the year went to Raul Ruiz’ four and a half hour drama Mysteries of Lisbon). In recent years, one film has always swept through the nominations and monopolized the winners. In 2011, Of Gods and Men  2010, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet won everything. In 2009, the film du jour was Martin Provost’s Seraphine. In 2008, Abdellatif Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain, 2007 Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, and so on.

This year, the competition is, well, a competition, and not a cartel. "There's no Jacques Audiard movie this year that will just sweep through and win everything,” this year’s ceremony host Antoine de Caunes told me after the awards were announced, adding: “It’s not like everything has already been decided in advance. Expect a lot of surprises this year.” 

The Artist is obviously a front-runner, but Poliss is certainly a voter favorite and Untouchable may just prove that Academy voters and French audiences don’t live on two different planets. The Minister and House of Tolerance are also fair game in every major category.

French cinema has always been revered in the US, but usually by small, art house crowds. And when French filmmakers attempted to make big commercial films to rival Hollywood blockbusters, they rarely made it across the French border.

Now, if they can just figure out how to pronounce it correctly, Dujardin is becoming a household name stateside and fashion magazines everywhere are wondering what Bejo will be wearing on the red carpet come Feb. 26.

French cinema has always had a je-ne-sais-quoi glamorous image. Think: Catherine Deneuve or Fanny Ardant who exuded incontestable confidence, but also a certain frostiness that was part of their charm. (Though, for anyone who has seen Potiche or any of Deneuve’s recent films, any distantness the actress had has been replaced by a fabulously refreshing self-effacing humor in recent years.)

Today’s crowd stills sends a postcard of French timeless beauty, but the new generation of talents are much more hip and relaxed, which also shows in their films. Even though their films feature tragic characters like abused children, a baby with a brain tumor, a paraplegic man or prostitutes, all of the films manage to show a humorous side too. And a more universal humor at that, since French humor doesn’t traditionally make anyone laugh other than the French themselves. Interestingly enough, while the comedy genre is typically ignored at the Academy, 2011 saw many French comedians branch out into more dramatic roles that were awarded with accolades such as best actor nominees Dujardin an Untouchable’s Omar Sy or best actress nominees Marina Fois and Karin Viard from Poliss.

Another thing about the next generation of French filmmakers that must be noted is that they’re very talented. Maiwenn and Donzelli wrote, directed and starred in their films which is made all the more unique and extraordinary considering they are both female and in their 30s. Toledano and Nakache manage to make audiences both laugh and cry in Untouchable, often both at the same time, not an easy task on the big screen. My non-French speaking mother, for example, saw the entire film in its original language and was moved to both laughter and tears on several occasions. The Artist is almost a metaphor, symbolizing the fact that, today, French cinema no longer needs to be translated to reach large audiences. The Artist speaks a universal tongue, as Hollywood fare has been doing for years and now, slowly but surely, French cinema is too.