Escorted by Paris police through a mob scene of photographers at Charles de Gaulle airport Tuesday, Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin returned from Hollywood glory to his native France just in time to promote his latest film. Les Infidèles (The Players), created, produced, co-written, and codirected by Hollywood’s new Gallic golden boy, opens today in theaters here in France. And no one will be mistaking the raunchy adult comedy for a sequel to The Artist.
In Les Infidèles, Dujardin returns to his sketch-comedy roots. The French-language (full color!) film—finished before The Artist’s whirlwind five-month, Harvey Weinstein-imposed Oscar campaign began—enlists seven directors, including The Artist’s Oscar-winning metteur en scène Michel Hazanavicius, for a compilation of short films on male infidelity. Dujardin, who plays five different characters in the film, says the idea came to him after he heard the story of a man who, whenever he turned off his cell phone to cheat on his wife, would buy a movie ticket to serve as his alibi. A risqué ad campaign for the film caught international attention and had French pundits wondering a month ago whether it might threaten Dujardin’s Oscar chances. The controversial posters, featuring Dujardin between a women’s outstretched legs and his costar Gilles Lellouche with a woman’s head at his crotch, were perceived as degrading to women and pulled early. But the machismo turns out to be tongue in cheek as Les Infidèles’ handsome two-timers are all deliberately cringeworthy. In the end, the joke is on the faux Don Juans. And the shamelessly kitsch and graphic surprise ending, a sketch made by Dujardin and his wingman Lellouche in Las Vegas, makes The Hangover look tame. Indeed, although the circuitous between-the-lines moral of the story is advocacy for fidelity, Les Infidèles is by no means a family picture to show the kiddies.
The film unites some of the leading lights of France’s very talented late-30something brat pack of real-life pals (not unlike the band George Clooney, Dujardin’s erstwhile Oscar rival, gathers for ensemble-cast fun stateside). Costar, co-writer, and codirector Lellouche accompanied the actor to the Oscars on Sunday, alongside Dujardin’s wife, Alexandra Lamy, who plays opposite her husband in the most dramatic of Les Infidèles’ sketches. Guillaume Canet, a top French actor-director and the real-life partner of Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, steals some scenes—he’s hilarious as the bourgeois brown-noser at an infidelity support group. (The dog in one of Canet’s scenes suffers a much crueler fate than The Artist’s celebrated Uggie.)
France has fêted Dujardin, beloved at home long before his tapdance to Hollywood, since his Oscar win at 5 a.m. local time Monday. French television ran his acceptance speech on a loop, and politicians in presidential campaign mode have competed to sing his praises. But critics here are lukewarm about Dujardin’s new film, calling the quality of the sketches uneven, at best. Le Monde, unimpressed, says, “Les Infidèles has the effect of a time machine ride to a time we don’t miss.” Le Nouvel Observateur is more generous. “There were two big dangers: misogyny and moralistic lecturing,” the French weekly opined. “More clever than that, the film avoids clichés, delves behind the caricatures to, in its best moments, extract some shameful truths about a generation of ridiculous men, too sensitive to be misogynist, not man enough to accept their machismo.”
Critics reserve the most applause for Hazanavicius’s short offering, light years from The Artist. In that sketch, Dujardin plays a middle-management loser on the prowl in a glamourless roadside hotel on the last night of an out-of-town business conference. Forget the charming George Valentin, whose mute Artist could draw a swoon with the arch of his eyebrow. Hazanavicius’s awkward new hero gets a unibrow, turned down by every one of his female colleagues, and attends to his own pleasure in a dark hotel bathroom between labored efforts at seduction.
Dujardin’s powerful pas de deux with wife Lamy, directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, the project’s only female director, is also getting strong reviews. (One critic likens the short to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Drama is a departure for the pair onscreen. Dujardin and Lamy’s real-life relationship began after they costarred in Un Gars, Une Fille (A Guy, A Girl), Dujardin’s breakout role, a popular series of six-minute sketches that aired before the evening news. Starting in 1999, the series ran nearly 500 episodes over four years. Lamy later made appearances in the cartoonish Dujardin film vehicles Brice de Nice (2005) and Lucky Luke (2009). Fans swooned when the onscreen couple, known affectionately as Loulou and Chouchou, married in real life. (In the United States, meanwhile, viewers of the Golden Globes took notice of Lamy when she suffered a wardrobe malfunction while congratulating her husband on his win.) But Dujardin has pointed out, while promoting Les Infidèles, that the couple’s history in the spotlight means everyone knows he has been unfaithful. Both actors were in relationships with the parents of their respective children (Dujardin has two sons, Lamy a daughter) when Un Gars, Une Fille began. “For me, everybody knew. That’s how my relationship with Alex started,” Dujardin told the French edition of Première Magazine.
With Les Infidèles, Dujardin pursues a habit of breaking radically with a preceding role, stretching his range and keeping audiences on their toes. Oscar surely won’t come calling for this one, but if his new film has anything in common with The Artist, it is that Dujardin looks like he’s having a good time. And as the actor with the infectious grin told Newsweek before he went intergalactic, that’s pretty much the point.