Society

A French Take On The Real Reasons Behind 'The Artist' Oscar Night Triumph

Analysis: The unprecedented Academy award victory capped a perfect storm of French culture, Hollywood nostalgia and the "Napoleonic" tactics of U.S. producer Harvey Weinstein.

(The Weinstein Company)
(The Weinstein Company)
Thomas Sotinel

The triumph of The Artist, the French black-and-white, almost completely silent film, is unprecedented -- and almost sure to never be repeated.

The success of Michel Hazanavicius' film lies in the fact that, for a moment, it rebuilt the Tower of Babel that the movie industry was before the invention of the talkies. Up until 1928, audiences and producers couldn't care less about the accents and pronunciations of the actors. It seems that voters this year for the British Baftas, the Spanish Goya Awards, the French Césars and the Academy Awards were seduced by such a return to the golden age of cinema, showering The Artist with accolades. All capped Sunday night by five Oscars: best film (first-ever for a French movie), best director, best actor (Jean Dujardin, first-ever for a French actor), best score, best costumes.

But much more than just honoring a French film, it is a whole chapter of the history of cinema that was recognized, at a time when the movie industry is experiencing a most radical technological change. The 2012 Academy Awards ceremony was held in the Hollywood and Highland Center which, until 2011, was known as the Kodak Theatre. But since the Rochester-based film company recently went bankrupt, the theater was rechristened, reminding us how the photochemical process of duplication of reality has now become obsolete.

On the verge of crossing the final threshold into the fully digital age, professionals of the movie industry perhaps saw the crowning of The Artist as a way to bid adieu to perforated films, projectors and electromechanical cameras. Indeed this craze for all things vintage shows up in other works honored Sunday night, notably Martin Scorsese's Hugo -- although Scorsese used the latest digital technology, such as impressive computer-generated images and 3D cameras borrowed from James Cameron, to pay hommage to the pioneer French filmmaker George Méliès.

The Artist"s uniqueness makes it highly unlikely for a similar kind of film to be produced any time soon. Especially since the French movie was made in very particular circumstances. Its director, Michel Hazanavicius, likes to repeat that, apart from producer Thomas Langmann, "nobody wanted this film."

The Artist was eventually financed by French television, both public (France 3) and private (Canal+), and by the producer himself, which is hardly common practice in France's cinema industry.

The producer and the director then agreed to say au revoir to state support that filming in Europe would have allowed. Produced in the United States and shot in another language than French, the film lost its rights to several public grants from France.

Napoleonic campaign

This choice proved a wise one. In the United States, both the audience and movie professionals have enjoyed recognizing familiar faces among supporting actors (John Goodman, Penelope Miller), as well as seeing the names of colleagues in the movie's credits.

Such circumstances differ so much from the way films are usually produced in France that it is unclear whether The Artist could become a French step in the door of the American movie industry.

Besides, one should not turn a blind eye on the role played by Harvey Weinstein, whose company distributed The Artist in the United States, in the success of the French film. Weinstein has the reputation of being able to carry any movie he chooses up to the Academy Awards. Thus in 2011, he served the Queen of England by helping Tom Hoope's The King's Speech get the better of David Fincher's The Social Network.

This year, Weinstein worked for the benefit of the French Republic and orchestrated the release of The Artist with subtle tactical Napoleonic tactics: screened in only four cinemas in November 2011, the film is now going to be shown on some 2,000 screens. Meanwhile, he organized dozens of private projections to get the attention of all different kinds of movie professionals, from film critics to directors, the very people who get to vote throughout the awards season.

Such a slow pace allowed The Artist to avoid the American distrust towards French cultural products --a distrust that is still very much present, as tweets and posts from Hollywood professionals have shown throughout Oscar night. The author of the novel on which The Descendants is based tweeted: "The Artist people were in line in front of me, and now I smell like cigarettes and entitlement."

But this distrust can also turn to admiration. Steven Spielberg has publicly stated that he was amazed to see that such a film could be produced, which he believes would have been impossible in Hollywood. The Artist"s actors and director are now under the wing of influential agents. All they have to do now is lose their French accent.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - The Weinstein Company

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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