From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.
The original poster art of Jean Dujardin in “Les Infidèles.”
At the inauguration of the Warner Brothers screening room in the Paris residence of the American ambassador Charles Rivkin the other night, the buzz among the American guests was less about the state-of-the art film technology than whether politically incorrect street posters advertising Jean Dujardin’s new comedy had sunk his chance to win the best-actor Oscar for “The Artist.”
Dujardin has been referred to as the “Gallic Clark Gable” and “France’s answer to George Clooney.” The film “Les Infidèles” is a series of sketches about adultery. One advertising poster shows Dujardin dressed in a suit and tie, holding open a woman’s bare, high-heeled legs, with the caption: “I’m going into a meeting.” After complaints — and fears that Dujardin’s image could be damaged — the posters were ordered to be taken down.
But that’s not all. Dujardin and his co-star Gilles Lellouche posed on the cover of the latest issue of Premiere magazine in suit jackets, dress shirts, ties and hairy legs, their hands covering their privates. In an interview in the magazine, Dujardin explained that infidelity has not been explored deeply enough in films and that he “wanted to go all the way, even if it has to hurt.” Asked whether he had ever been unfaithful, he replied, “Everyone knows it. That’s how my relationship with Alex started.” (Dujardin and Alexandra Lamy, his current wife who is featured in the film, fell in love and left their respective spouses in 2003.) The film’s trailer includes images of the two actors with women who are not their wives in various stages of comic nakedness and lovemaking. (Fortunately for Dujardin, the film opens after Oscar night.)
The stereotype was played with — mildly — earlier this month, in a well-scripted exchange between Dujardin and Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” Dujardin described how during the filming of “The Artist” he lived in a big white house in Los Angeles and drove with his American girlfriend in a white car. “But I read in your biography that you were married,” Leno said. “Yes,” Dujardin deadpanned, “but I had a mistress. I’m French.” He went on to explain that he was referring to the voice of the “G.P.S. lady.”
Dujardin’s remarks in Premiere and the Jay Leno episode illustrate the divide between French and American attitudes toward adultery. In France, Dujardin can brush off his own adulterous past; in the United States, he used the stereotype of the adulterous French lover to make a joke about it.
Alain Jocard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Left: François Hollande with his partner Valerie Trierweiler. Right: Newt Gingrich with his third wife, Callista.
Beyond pop culture, the cultural divide plays out in both country’s presidential politics. The Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich carried on a secret six-year extramarital affair with a much younger woman who became his third wife. The infidelity was something for which he said he needed “to go to God for forgiveness.”
In France, the I-word hardly ever comes up. During the 2007 presidential campaign, many in the French elite, including some French journalists, knew but did not reveal that the Socialist party candidate Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, then the Socialist party leader and Royal’s partner and the father of their four children, were no longer a couple; the fact that he had been having an affair with a French Paris Match journalist for more than a year was also kept secret. Now Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate this time around, is leading the polls in this year’s presidential election; his past transgression doesn’t figure in the campaign. (He and the journalist present themselves as a very-much-in-love, although unmarried, couple.)
Tolerance of infidelity is commonplace in nearly all aspects of French life. One week in the advice column of Femina, the women’s magazine supplement of a popular weekly newspaper, Anne B. from Alsace asked a straightforward question: “Should I leave my husband?”
“Married for 30 years, we haven’t had sex for five years,” she explained. “Recently, I met up with an old flame. We’ve had a secret affair for 10 months. I am very happy with him, but he’s married as well, and he can’t leave his wife. I don’t feel brave enough to leave my husband. I don’t want to hurt him and financially, it’s impossible.”
The columnist’s advice was to be romantic, self-indulgent and mature — by being dishonest: “In fairy tales, heroes love each other passionately and exclusively in nights without end; in real life, it happens that you sincerely love your husband or wife at the same time that you have an affair for a while. Live your relationship one day at a time, without rushing to make an irrevocable decision that you may regret.”
Keeping a mistress in a chateau, as did the French kings, or even in a government-financed apartment, as François Mitterrand did with his mistress and their daughter when he was president, is a practice of the past. But the very acceptance of adultery in French culture may be eroding. “We are witnessing the return of the value of fidelity among the young,” said Philippe Brenot, a psychiatrist and author of a book on men, sex and love, in an interview with France Inter radio. Frenchmen over 50 who lived through the sexual revolution, he added, are “a lot more flexible” than their offspring.
Some experts credit the financial crisis with restoring classic French virtues of restraint, modesty and familial responsibility. (Who can afford to support a lover, anyway?) And it could be that infidelity is impossible to quantify when so many young people choose to enter into a French civil solidarity contract that contains fewer responsibilities than marriage, or not to marry at all. In any case, a C.S.A. poll for Madame Figaro in 2009 concluded that 80 percent of the French between 18 and 25 years old — versus 66 percent of the general public — believe that fidelity is of indispensable value in the life of a couple.
“Our generation came of age in an unstable, precarious, hostile world — with unemployment, AIDS, an anguished vision of life,” said Myriam Levain, 29, co-author of “Generation Y by Itself,” a new book about French youth between 18 and 30 years old. “We’ve lived through divorce among our parents. So it’s difficult to find a model. The idea of ‘the couple’ has become a refuge, one of the rare points of reference that exists for us.”