REPORTING FROM PARIS — It was well past midnight in Paris when the Oscar telecast concluded. So France woke up Monday with euphoria for the remarkable success of "The Artist," the French production that was shot in Los Angeles.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy termed the film's five-Oscar victory "a testament to the vitality of our cinema," in a statement that was mirrored by opposition Socialist candidate François Hollande, who said the Oscar recognition "shows the vitality of our cinema, its major role in the influence of France.”
Headlines at newstands at Gare Montparnasse and beyond loudly hailed the near-silent film's success as a “renewal of French cinema.”
But one nagging question kept popping up on this side of the Atlantic: How French is the film starring, directed and produced by les francais, but shot in Hollywood, in English, and God forbid, even mistaken, or perceived (depending on how you see it), as an American film by viewers in the U.S., not to mention the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself?
Even director Michel Hazanavicius has repeatedly said the film, “is clearly more of American inspiration than French.”
Many in France sense the film was honored in L.A. because it flatters American nostalgia for a golden age in cinema, and was promoted by producer Harvey Weinstein as a (mostly) American creation. Not because there is much particularly reflective of French talent about it.
“How could a silent black-and-white French film ... end up with five Oscars?” asks Olivier Bonnard for Le Nouvel Observateur’s. The answer: “Because Americans don’t know it is a French film,” thanks to “another magic trick signed by Weinstein.”
“'The Artist' is a vibrant declaration of love for American cinema,” added Bonnard. “The academy surely loved looking into the mirror that the film held up to it.”
French reports in recent weeks frequently pointed out that Jean Dujardin, the film’s Oscar-winning star, kept his speaking to a minimum while promoting the film in the U.S., preferring to stick to silence or a few heavily accented English comments, plus a tap dance or two, in order to downplay the Frenchness of the film. ("Saturday Night Live," on the other hand, did an homage to French clichés in a dancing skit with Dujardin.)
And though recently published statistics showed 2011 was one of France's most successful in terms of box-office receipts, film production and exports, self-congratulatory reports on that news were no sooner met with questions about whether French film truly deserved the praise it has been getting here.
“Success, Oscars … but is French cinema really doing that well?” asked the cover of the French culture weekly les Inrockuptibles. With examples like "The Artist," which runs contrary to notions of typical French “auteur” or new wave-style films, the magazine’s writer, Jean-Marc Lalanne, concludes: “It seems that French cinema, for those who make it, serves as a counter-model. Nobody really wants to be a part of it.”
Despite all the head-scratching, Monday-morning celebrations (in newsrooms at least) appeared in full swing, with talk of “cracking” the American film industry.
“On the Hollywood stage and Highland Center … the French accent was heard in all its splendor,” wrote the French daily Le Monde.
And there seemed no end to the images of Dujardin's winning smile, and minor variations on the catchy phrase used on television as well as in print: "How a Frenchy seduced Hollywood."
— Devorah Lauter
Photo: Jean Dujardin poses with his Oscar for lead actor in "The Artist" after it is engraved at the Governors Ball following the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press.