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France for Nonmajors: Things You May Want to Know about Marion Cotillard, Nicholas Sarkozy and French Media

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In real estate it's said the three most important variables are
location, location and location.

We should all be so lucky that when some allegedly scandalous piece of
news enters the you-must-take-notice infosphere, an editor has paused
to chant thrice over: context, context, context.

Thanks to sub-prime reporting, vast numbers of English speakers are
under the impression that freshly minted Oscar recipient Marion
Cotillard recently stood on a soapbox in France to cast aspersions on
the U.S. government, the victims of the ghastly events of September 11,
2001 and NASA, circa 1969.

While it's true that best actress winner Cotillard did hold forth on
those topics and there's a video record to prove it, the first casualty
in keeping us "informed" of vital developments is too often a framework
in which to situate what we're being told.

The British tabloid press was only too happy to run with this story,
which U.S. media outlets in turn magnified. Where facts are, as Ronald
Reagan so memorably put it, stupid things, it may be futile even to try
to correct the record; nevertheless here are a few pertinent facts to
keep in mind while evaluating Cotillard's comments about the moon
landing and 9/11.

First, please note that Cotillard said nothing to dishonor the victims
of that day's terrible events. She did, however, say she believes
"we're often lied to" -- which means she has at least one thing in
common with an awful lot of other people.

She doesn't accuse the U.S. government of complicity. Reporters added
that spin, deliberately embellishing and sensationalizing her actual
musings.

It would have been better if she'd said something demonstrably true --
say, about how rescue workers and area residents were lied to about the
safety of the air they were breathing -- rather than repeating (without
necessarily giving credence to) surely specious rumors.

Or, sticking closer to her own country, she could have mentioned
Chernobyl, and how there unquestionably WAS a French government
conspiracy to avert panic, by convincing the populace that the toxic
cloud wafting across Europe had politely decided to respect the border
of France and drift elsewhere. ( It took roughly two decades for the
government to acknowledge that much of France had been exposed to
radioactive fallout.)

And who is this presumptuous French chick, anyway, to have an opinion
on anything besides how often she's planning to dust her Oscar?

American audiences may only recently have learned to recognize
Cotillard's well-scrubbed good looks but, at 32, Cotillard has been
acting nearly half her life. She has been familiar to European
filmgoers since she played one of the central character's girlfriends
in the fabulously successful (and monumentally dumb) trio of Taxi
movies. (She opted out of last year's "Taxi 4.")

Cotillard has a phenomenal range -- dopey and wildly popular comedies
(Taxi 1, 2 and 3); touching historical dramas (Lisa); touching
contemporary dramas (Toi et Moi); surreal and/or unclassifiable
oddities (Innocence, Dikkenek); sci-fi-tinged political drama
(Furia); bittersweet romances (Love is in the Air) and more.
Cotillard excelled at playing a good girl and her evil twin in
over-the-top pop music romp "Les jolies choses" and stood out as a
grief-driven femme fatale in WWI-era period extravaganza A Very Long
Engagement
. She has also appeared in English-speaking roles in Tim
Burton's Big Fish, Ridley Scott's A Good Year and Abel Ferrara's
Mary.

Skill as an actress -- which her fellow thespians acknowledged in
sufficient numbers to result in an Oscar for embodying Edith Piaf -- is
not a vaccination against inappropriate behavior or congenital
ditziness. But Cotillard (who, for the record, is a committed
environmental activist who considered ditching acting to devote more
time to Greenpeace) didn't step over any line, although over-zelaous
reporters made it seem as if she had, positing that her statements
would leave her career "in tatters".

At least one reporter asked the Academy if they would reposess
Cotillard's Oscar -- as if it were an ill-gotten Olympic medal in the
wake of a doping scandal.

(Instead of saying "I won't dignify that question with an answer," an
Academy spokesperson gave a sensible reply. Rough paraphrase: When you
win one fair and square, it's for what you accomplished onscreen and
it's for keeps.)

The weekend of March 1, the web site of irreverent French weekly
Marianne (named for the plucky female representative of the French
Republic whose one bare breast used to grace the 100-franc note) posted
a segment of a TV show that first ran in February 2007, in which
Cotillard and her make-up man strolled through the Paris catacombs,
with a video crew in tow.

The show had been telecast -- again, more than a full YEAR ago -- on
Paris Premiere, a French cable station (also available via satellite)
whose emphasis is culture-related programming. (In addition to shows
about movies and books, they've been the French home of James Lipton's
Inside the Actors Studio.) In other words, the context of
Cotillard's comments was a casual show on an outlet as far-removed as
possible from a CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera, in a format closer to a home
video than to 60 Minutes or Oprah.

Cotillard's remarks that have burned up the internet resembled a
conversation many Americans might have if somebody said, "Well, I don't
see how Lee Harvey Oswald could have hit JFK with that gun from that
location" or "It sure seems like Kurt Cobain killed himself, but how
can we be sure?"

The now needlessly notorious TV segment starts with a discussion about
the late French comedian Coluche, (France's answer to George Carlin,
soon to be the subject of a biopic), prompted by the fact that the same
station had shown a piece concerning him.

Coluche (who, like many French entertainers, used only one name) died
in a motorcycle accident in the summer of 1986. An astute comic
observer of everyday life and politics (he once ran for president à la
Pat Paulsen), his legacy includes launching a still-functioning system
of much-needed soup kitchens.

There has been modest speculation for two decades that Coluche's death
was not an accident, that he was either murdered or perhaps staged his
own demise in order to slip away to a new life (in the manner of rumors
about the likes of Elvis or Jim Morrison).

In the Premiere excerpt, as Cotillard and her colleague make their way
through dimly lit bone-filled passageways, Cotillard's make-up man
expresses doubts about the circumstances of Coluche's death.

Cotillard replies that she tends to lean toward the skeptic's version
of such events, not because she's paranoid but because she believes the
full truth is often kept from the general public.

She says a few things about how she finds it odd that the Twin Towers
fell as quickly as they did since she'd seen footage of other buildings
that had been hit by aircraft and burned, but never collapsed, as a
result. She says there's so much speculation about September 11th on
the web that it's downright addictive. She does repeat allegations
that it was easier to demolish the World Trade Center than to fully
modernize it.

Does Cotillard evince a physicist's or an engineer's grasp of events?
Uh, no. But then, how many of us do?

As for her doubts about man landing on the moon, Cotillard says she's
seen documentaries that aim to refute that historic accomplishment. I
don't know how many such documentaries she's seen, but there's at least
one, made in 2002 by the ingenious French documentary-maker William
Karel (The World According to Bush) that was telecast on
Franco-German cultural channel Arte, on April Fool's Day in 2004.

In his work making documentaries about American history, Karel has shot
hours of footage with major American politicians, ex-CIA operatives and
the like. In an implicit critique of how editing can be used to create
the illusion of truth, Karel wove his left-over footage into a very
clever questioning of the 1969 moon landing, complete with "evidence"
that Stanley Kubrick was hired to stage what television viewers took to
be a real event.

Karel's documentary ("L'Operation lune") was a hoax. To a viewer old
enough to have watched that moonboot-clad "one small step for a man,
one giant leap for mankind" as it happened, Karel's mockumentary is
deft enough to raise doubts. To somebody like Cotillard, born after
the first moon landing, it would probably seem even more convincing.

Cotillard's retroactive 'crime' seems to amount to not having censored
herself in expressing personal reservations about the way the general
public is informed about world events. (And hey -- if she was
skeptical before, imagine how she must feel now in the face of so much
fury-from-nowhere over a negligible domestic TV appearance.)

In the readers' comments on the web site of a British paper, I found a
declaration from somebody who, despite just having bought the DVD of
"La Vie en Rose" (original title: La Mome), had chucked it into the
dustbin. THAT'LL show that ungrateful Marion Cotillard.

An internet post or two from French observers contended that "Marianne"
hadn't much cared for the film "La Mome" in the first place. Hmmmm....

So, if Cotillard is silly enough to believe that we're being lied to
about any aspect of what really happened on September 11, shouldn't she
at least be "smart" enough never to express her doubts when a camera or
tape recorder is rolling? In other words, shouldn't she have stopped
being herself a long time ago? Shouldn't she "know" that she might be
collecting a Bafta trophy, a Golden Globe, a Cesar and an Oscar a year
hence, and censor herself accordingly lest she be taken out of context
in March 2008 over remarks she made in early 2007?

This is hardly the equivalent of nude photos surfacing of somebody who
has just been crowned Miss America -- or Miss France, for that matter.

It is my understanding that beauty pageant contestants sign a statement
on their honor that they have not done -- and will not do -- anything
that might be at odds with their wholesome responsibilities should they
win.

So far as I know, an actor is a private individual and, short of
badmouthing a film of theirs while it's in commercial release, they're
still allowed to have opinions. Even silly or under-informed ones.
("Sorry, you're a really terrific actor but we hear you believe in
alien abductions, so we're passing you over for somebody who believes
Saddam Hussein has a planet-threatening cache of WMDs.")

As a general rule, French celebrities value good manners but see no
reason to censor themselves. A wide range of public figures think
nothing of using the French equivalent of the worst swear words in
public, on radio and on television. I'm talking about words the FCC
would have people's tongues cut out for uttering, if torture were not
against our principles as a nation.

President Nicholas Sarkozy was roundly criticized for losing his cool
at the recent annual Agriculture Fair by insulting a constituent who
refused to shake his hand (while saying it would "sully" him to be
touched by the president.)

Sarkozy's transgression was not swearing, per se (although he was
plenty vulgar); it was losing his composure over such a minor slight.
(Marine Le Pen, the daughter of right-wing racist and xenophobe
Jean-Marie Le Pen and a politician in her own right, said that -- given
Sarkozy's short fuse -- it was perhaps time to think about withdrawing
some of the president's powers, such as the possibility of launching a
nuclear attack. She also said Sarkozy's much-publicized outburst had
made it that much harder for her to convince her 9-year-old son that
one must always respect others and not resort to profanity.)

By the way, translations of Sarkozy's rejoinder were relatively demure
in the English-language press. If Sarkozy were a character in a movie
rather than president of France, a conscientious sub-titler would have
rendered his utterance as "Fuck off then, pathetic loser." Forced to
condense for lack of screen time, "Fuck off, asshole" would also be
accurate. Sarkozy employed the informal "tu" rather than the formal
"vous" -- a near-unforgivable lapse in decorum, even when expressing
bottomless contempt marbled with aggravation.

While France is not completely free of censorship -- government
authorities may impound a book or the entire print run of a newspaper
or magazine they think compromises national interests -- in French
radio and TV there is no "lag" on live broadcasts lest someone say a
dirty word.

There is a certain amount of collective breath-holding during the
Oscars telecast. What if a presenter or winner launches into a
political speech? What if a swear word escapes somebody's lips?

Let's compare and contrast with the Cesars, France's (much younger)
answer to the Oscars. The show is telecast, unscrambled and free of
charge, by French subscription TV channel Canal Plus, most of whose
programming requires a paid decoder box. There are no commercials, no
time limits on acceptance speeches. The show lasts as long as it
lasts. The Minister of Culture is always in the audience and, most
years, is harangued at least once from the stage for not doing quite
enough for the performing arts.

Whoever currently holds the post listens politely and never responds,
however harsh the accusations of his or her shortcomings. "Vous" is
always employed during these ritual expressions of creative
dissatisfaction. (As in, "Vous are in the process of gutting what
French culture has always stood for and vous should be ashamed of
yourself if you don't remedy the crisis pronto.")

There is no orchestra to drown out dissent or keep the show rolling.

David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises was one of the nominees for best
foreign film. French actor Vincent Cassel has a prominent role as a
Russian thug misbehaving in London. The clip the Cesar producers chose
to show has Cassel and two associates looking at a former colleague,
dead, in a freezer case. Cassel's character muses that he and the
victim were once as close as brothers, but now he looks "like a fucking
ice cream!"

Among the dozens of film clips shown in tribute to Jeanne Moreau
(honored for her 60 years in show business), were several in which the
actress appeared in an advanced state of undress, at one point
cavorting in a fairly useless bed sheet in a scene from Joseph Losey's
"Eva."

The clip from animated treat "Persepolis" featured the protagonist's
grandmother comforting her grand-daughter with a speech in which she
tells the youngster that in life she'll run across many an asshole but
she shouldn't blame them for being assholes because they can't help it.

Naughty words! Nudity! On television! The sky didn't fall in. The
people who produced the show deliberately included those pithy,
evocative elements because it didn't occur to them not to.

However, denying the Holocaust is a crime in France. Hate crimes of
all stripes are vigorously denounced and promptly prosecuted.

Did Marion Cotillard imply that terrorists have the right idea or
Americans deserve to die? Nothing of the sort. She (clumsily
perhaps, but without a trace of malice) mused about things that, in
view of her reading and viewing at the time of that taping, didn't
quite mesh for her.

Coming from France and sideswiped by nasty, inflated allegations
["Marion Cotillard faces a huge backlash after accusing America of
making up the 9/11 terrorist attacks"/ "Cotillard, who also got a Bafta
for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, faced losing millions in a
boycott by the patriotic Hollywood film industry." -- The Daily
Mirror
; "Cotillard will have to clear up the international incident
quickly:," -- NY Daily News] , Cotillard protested that her remarks had
been taken out of context. That's because they HAD, quite literally,
been taken out of their original context and plugged into the anything
goes celebs-are-fair-game media grinder.

"Cotillard is well known for believing in the fantastic. In her Oscar
acceptance speech she said that her best-actress victory was proof
'there is some angels' in Los Angeles," wrote the LA Times on March 4.
Am I the only viewer who took that to be a rather charming reference to
the Spanish-language meaning of the California city in which the
Academy Awards are handed out?

Using this logic, Canada-born Joni Mitchell must be a Satan-worshipper
since she once sang of Los Angeles as the "city of fallen angels."
[Mission accomplished: anybody doing a web search for 'Joni Mitchell' +
"Satan' will now hit digital pay dirt.]

Back in the real world, 60 Minutes found American voters in parts of
Ohio fully convinced that Barack Obama is a practicing Muslim who, if
elected, would refuse to be sworn in on a Christian Bible. At least
one such individual had no qualms about being shown on national network
television expressing his doubts.

Should he lose his job -- whatever it happens to be -- for falling for
a smear campaign?

Is it somehow "unpatriotic" and should it spell professional suicide
for a foreigner to question another country's official line on
historical events?

It was Le Monde, France's leading daily, that carried the headline
"Nous sommes tous des americains" (We Are All Americans) on September
12, 2001.

If we could endeavor to curb our knee-jerk reactions to anything we
think a French person or institution has gotten wrong about America, we
might deserve that unqualified solidarity again some day.