Those of you lucky enough to catch the Oscars last night (here in France they were only aired on a pay cable channel that we don’t have…sigh….) probably saw the funny, handsome Frenchman Jean Dujardin win Best Actor for his role in The Artist.
As he accepted his award, Dujardin’s exuberance wasn’t surprising. But France’s reaction to his nomination and subsequent win, is.
Over the weekend, his chances at getting the Oscar was the topic of the feature story on just about any news program. For weeks, online articles about Dujardin, including ones promoting his latest film, Les Infidèles, were loaded with comments from readers like “Go Dujardin!” or “Best of luck, Jean!”
In some countries, showing support for a compatriot, be it for an acting award, a sporting event, or otherwise, is pretty standard. But in France, it’s not the norm. I’ve often written that, by and large, the French character has a tendency towards cynicism and negativity. For me, Cyrano de Bergerac is a perfect example of the French attitude: he’s brave, intelligent, and romantic, but he hides his vulnerability behind wit, self-deprecation, and even anger. When the French talk about athletes representing them at the Olympics, for example, they usually focus on the bad performances. Every pratfall, every error, every elimination evokes an expression from many of them – not the “Oh no!” that most of us would say, but “Ah bon, voilà, à la française.” ("Ah, there you go, that’s the French way.").
So why was there all this positivity and encouragement for Jean Dujardin, an unknown actor in America up against the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt?
Although he wasn’t known in the US before The Artist, Dujardin is not only a successful actor in France, he’s regularly voted one of the country’s best-loved personalities. Born in 1972 in a wealthy suburb outside Paris, Dujardin was going to go into the family locksmith business, but something didn’t feel right to him. He ended up following his heart and started doing stand-up and sketch comedy, creating characters like Brice de Nice (Brice from Nice), a loser would-be surfer (with its coast on the calm waters of the Mediterranean, Nice isn’t exactly a mecca for catching waves). Dujardin also appeared on the show Graines de star (roughly similar to X Factor), which he won several times in the late ‘90’s.
But his breakthrough would come in 1999, when he was chosen to play the male half of a typical modern French couple in the comedy sketch series Un gars, une fille (A guy, a girl). The show is genuinely funny and completely relatable, and it’s not surprising that it took off and became a wild success. Although it ended in 2003, reruns are still aired on several channels here, and people (myself very much included) still happily tune in.
With Alexandra Lamy in a scene from the series "Un gars, une fille"
The series wasn't just a turning point in Dujardin’s life because it made him famous. If you’ve watched any awards shows this year, you’ve probably seen that Dujardin is often accompanied by his wife. Her name is Alexandra Lamy, and she played the fille in Un gars, une fille. When the two started filming, they were both in serious relationships with other people. But onscreen, their attraction and affection towards each other is almost palpable. It felt so natural that you could think they really had been together since the start of the show. In the end, unable to deny their feelings, they broke up with their respective partners, and have been together ever since. Both are still acting, so they regularly appear together in public, but their three children (from their previous relationships) are out of the spotlight. I can’t help but respect that.
After more than six years together, the couple tied the knot in 2009.
After Un gars, une fille, Jean Dujardin continued playing comedic parts, although now, producers were willing to bet on him as a leading man in film roles. He made a movie adaptation of his “Brice de Nice” character that was a huge success, and also starred in two movies as the agent OSS 117 (the second of which was directed by The Artist’s writer/director Michel Hazanavicius), sort of the French equivalent of the Austin Powers films. But Dujardin surprised his fans by taking on serious roles in suspense thrillers and dramas as well. In Contre-enquête, one of his first serious films, he played a police officer investigating the rape and murder of his young daughter. In Le Bruit des glaçons, he stars as a man dying of cancer, who meets an embodiment of his disease. He also starred in an edgy, hilarious adaptation of Frédéric Beigbeder (one of my favorite contemporary French writers - sort of a modern French Oscar Wilde, with lots of drugs and sex added in)’s book 99 Francs, a lurid look at the world of advertising.
By the time The Artist came out here, no one was surprised that Jean Dujardin had chosen another unusual, challenging role. Still, he did it so well that he took our breaths away. His Palme d’Or at Cannes last May was the first in a series of awards leading, of course, to the Oscar, which even outside America is seen as la crème de la crème.
Whether he’s a guy in a typical couple, a ridiculous surfer, a silly spy, a father dealing with the loss of his daughter, or a silent film star about to lose everything, there’s a glimmer of the everyman in Jean Dujardin, and I think that’s what makes his success mean so much to the French. In him, they see something of themselves. His failures are their failures, understandable, regrettable, not something to mock. And his successes are something the whole country feels like they’ve won. Even Dujardin’s fellow actors have expressed nothing but encouragement for him. In recent weeks, at just about every premier or celebrity interview here, the question of his chances at the Oscar have come up, and I haven’t heard a single person make a rude or cynical comment about the guy or his nomination.
Today, as the French celebrate Dujardin’s victory, I think in a way it feels like a shared award. Add to this the incredible bonus of The Artist winning Best Picture, and there's a downright gleefulness in the air.
It’s a beautiful moment, and ephemeral:
In a few months, the Eurovision song contest
will come and most likely the French will lose.
Then it will be the Olympics where, no matter how many medals they earn, they’ll still jeer at and feel secretly let down by every misstep and loss made by a French athlete.
I’m savoring the feeling of happy pride here today; this kind of vibe is almost as rare as a Frenchman winning the Best Actor Oscar.