Oscar Favorite The Artist Faces Formidable Rival In France’s César Awards

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Olivier Nakache, Ludovico Enaudi and Eric Toledano attend the 'Intouchables' photocall at Eden Hotel on February 21, 2012 in Rome, Italy

Update: The Césars are over in Paris, and the winners are:

The Artist, to the tune of six awards, including Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius, Best Lead Actress for Bérénice Bejo, and Best Film.

Omar Sy, for Best Lead Actor in Intouchables.

Hollywood, France has now asked clearly if “you want some of this?!” The answer (and, doubtless, Jean Dujardin’s nerves) awaits Sunday night.

Silent international film sensation, and clear Oscar frontrunner, The Artist may represent France’s best chance to nab those little gold men during Sunday’s 84th Academy Awards ceremony, yet it probably isn’t the favorite to take top honors in Friday night’s home town César awards in Paris. Indeed, despite the critical success The Artist has enjoyed around the world with its simple yet powerful tale of vanity, loss, love and redemption (to say nothing of the cuteness factor provided by Uggie the dog), the movie may end up playing second fiddle to Intouchables (“Untouchable”) — a feel-good, true life tale of acceptance and affirmation that has thrilled viewers with its examination of the numerous and deep prejudices that people in French society still face, and at times, manage to overcome.

While The Artist has taken the world by storm by recreating a film before talkies and color became the cinematic norm, Intouchables became France’s biggest domestic smash of the year with an endearing yet gritty black-and-white story of its own. To wit: a film which centers on the confrontation and embrace of people on either side of the considerable racial, economic, generational, and even physical divides that split French society into camps. Intouchables recounts the story of a rich, highly-cultured, and slightly prejudiced tetraplegic white man who hires a black delinquent from a suburban housing project–and who has more than a few preconceived ideas of his own about affluent, white France–to move into his Left Bank townhouse as his full-time care-giver. The resulting appreciation and affection that results from the meeting of two worlds is the stuff of Hollywood fairy-tales—yet it’s based on a true story directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano came across in a 2004 documentary.

Astonishingly, given the brutal manner it treats topics such as racism, poverty, and infirmity, Intouchables is both warm and very funny—and distinctively French to boot. And that’s been a recipe for success: In just over two months following its November release, Intouchables has become France’s second-best domestic ticket-seller in history, with 19 million admissions. (That tally keeps nudging closer each week to the top spot held by another stereotype-challenging comedy, 2008’s Bienvenu chez les Ch’tis.)

Given its exploration of the discrimination still common in France, it shouldn’t be surprising Intouchables is among the main contenders in Friday’s César awards, including Best Film and Director. The movie’s main actors, François Cluzet (Round Midnight) and the irresistibly comical Omar Sy, are both nominated for Best Lead, alongside The Artist’s heart-throb, Jean Dujardin.

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Were that contest strictly determined by which movies best reflected French cinema (and France in general) in a given year, it’s safe to say Intouchables would be the hands-down favorite to win most, if not all of the nine Césars it’s been nominated for. But following France’s accomplished production of films last year, nothing can be considered a cinch. Maïwenn Le Besco’s gripping cop drama, Polisse, resulted in admirable box office and drew critical acclaim—scoring it 13 César nominations, and expectations among some insiders that it could dominate Friday’s ceremony.  And then, bien sûr, there’s The Artist, whose recent international surge was foreshadowed by enthusiasm from French audiences and reviewers after it’s October 2011 release. Its makers and cast are up for 10 Césars (exactly the same amount as Oscar nominations) they hope will join the seven awards it bagged earlier this month at the BAFTAs, and three Golden Globes it won in January. And in addition to those international honors, The Artist has another advantage over the otherwise favorite Intouchables: that impressive haul of Oscar nods.

What’s one ceremony got to do with the other, especially given the distinctly French cultural and social focus of the Césars? Perhaps plenty as Oscar pressure mounts. More than a little nail-biting is going on right now among the French film industry’s executives (as well as critics and movie-lovers) who are hoping to see a rare bit of Oscar gold come France’s way. They’ll be crushed—and French national pride deflated–if The Artist comes so close to cinematic glory, and then is denied at Sunday’s finish line. Most of all, fans are dying to see Dujardin get the Best Actor prize, which would be the first ever such accolade for a Frenchman. (Marion Cotillard set that precedent for French women by winning Best Actress in 2008 for La Vie en Rose.)

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Because of that — and with Dujardin up against such Hollywood titans as George Clooney and Brad Pitt — some cynics in France aren’t putting it past the César judges to shower The Artist with awards Friday night as a way of making the film’s possible defeat on Sunday seem not just illogical—but somehow just plain wrong. But while skeptics wouldn’t be wrong — now or anytime — of influential French figures seeking to give their side any kind of advantage against rivals in global competition, cynics will need to keep things in perspective even if The Artist does win big in Hollywood. After all, beauty (and art) are always going to be in the eye of the subjective beholder, especially in an industry that specializes in making dreams come true.

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