The Artist: as French as French toast?

Jean DuJardin and Uggie the dog at the Oscars

A French movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture! How exciting! Actually, I have to disagree. It’s not that I have a problem with The Artist winning the top award. It’s just that I can’t get behind calling it a “French” movie. Yes, the main actors are French. The director is French. The producer is French. Most importantly, the euros that paid to make the film were French (and to a large extent directly from the government). But John Goodman is not French. Penelope Ann Miller is not French. Uggie the dog, arguably the true star of the movie, is not French. The story is not French. In fact, it’s a story that celebrates Hollywood and the golden age of AMERICAN cinema. It’s the only film of the nine nominated for Best Picture that was actually filmed entirely in Los Angeles. How’s that for French?

Midnight in Paris is French. Hugo is French. The Artist really isn’t French.

The Artist isn’t IN French. Obviously, it’s silent, but there are intertitles… in English. When it was originally released in France, it must have had subtitles for the intertitles. Can you imagine? All that text invading the screen would never fly with US audiences.

Even with all the critical acclaim, The Artist has not done well in America. It made a whopping $31 million. Maybe that sounds like a lot of money until you compare it to something like the final Harry Potter movie which made $381 million! Even A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas made $35 million. Ouch.

So what does the success of The Artist mean for foreign cinema in America? Probably nothing. In 2007, Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the Edith Piaf bio-flick, La Vie En Rose. What did that do? Nothing. The movie made just over $10 million. A pittance. Not nearly enough to motivate American distributors to take on foreign films. The only thing La Vie En Rose did do was send Marion Cotillard running for the Hollywood hills. She’s only made two French movies since then (one of them, coincidentally, also starred Jean DuJardin). But she can speak English, (albeit with a charming “I’ll always be cast as that mysterious foreign woman” accent), something DuJardin really struggles to do.

Neither DuJardin nor The Artist director, Michel Hazanavicius, seem in any hurry to make movies with an American audience in mind. Their next film, another collaboration, is the raunchy comedy Les Infidèles (The Players). I’d share a link to the trailer, but I’ll just say this isn’t that kind of blog and leave it at that. Actually, it might be just the kind of movie Americans are into (The Hangover II made a quarter of a billion dollars, after all), but considering how NSFW the trailer alone is, I can only assume that the movie itself would warrant an NC-17 rating without some creative editing.

France is the second biggest exporter of films after the United States, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any of the top French movies in many American theatres. The biggest movie in France last year, Intouchables (Untouchable) is scheduled for a limited US release this coming May. The film is poised to break all kinds of French box office records, approaching Titanic in number of tickets sold. But if you don’t live in New York or LA, you probably won’t have the opportunity to see it (unless it goes to DVD… Netflix is the great foreign film equalizer).

Here in Boston, we have a big hipster/intelligentsia population so the art-house outlets for foreign cinema are plentiful. The Coolidge Corner Theatre. The Landmark Theatres. The Brattle Theatre. We’re pretty lucky. There is also a relatively large francophone population here (see: Coeur de Pirate concert) so the Museum of Fine Arts has a French Film Festival every July. Chances are Intouchables will be screening there this year. But The Artist wasn’t on the list last year. Because it isn’t really French.

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2 Responses to The Artist: as French as French toast?

  1. Seycen says:

    I like the fact that the Artist won the Oscar despite not being big at the box office. It kind of reassures me that the Academy judges aren’t in the pocket of the film production companies who have a big financial interest in seeing their film win the top prize. However, it puzzled me that the Artist was nominated while Les Intouchables didn’t get a mention anywhere.

    I find it enormously annoying and frustrating that it is virtually impossible to watch smaller, ‘foreign’ films unless you live in the country. As a Brit living in France there are many low-budget British films I’d love to see. They’ll be shown at independent cinemas in the UK (although if you blink you’ll miss them), but if you’re not there you have no chance. It’s usually not even possible to watch them on the internet – whether legally or not. Grrrrr!!!!

  2. nicoleegidio says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s nice for a relatively unknown movie to win because it brings exposure to a film that might otherwise have too small a marketing budget to make any noise, but on the other, I question why the critical and popular markets don’t meet more often. The only one of the best picture nominees in the top 30 highest grossing movies of last year was The Help and that still only came in 13. (http://boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2011) Obviously I’m not trying to argue that Transformers or Twilight are great thespian achievements or anything like that, but it can’t help but make me wonder what exactly makes a movie the best movie of the year, and why is it that, overall, nobody wants to see “good” movies!

    And it is incredibly frustrating that in this “small,” globalized world we live in, the exchange of media is still so closed and controlled and one-sided that someone somewhere gets to determined what movies/music/books/etc. people get to see where and which ones they can’t. Maybe someday, when our televisions have become so big that we don’t have to go to the movies anymore and everything is just on demand, the entire world catalog will be available to everyone everywhere. At least a girl can dream, right?

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