25 February 2008

No Country

Lone Star: Tommy Lee Jones

I take full credit for the victories of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men at the Academy Awards ceremony last night. I saw the picture on Friday afternoon, and obviously that was just the push required.

If you haven’t seen No Country, I urge you to do so. The bleak philosophy and abundant gore won’t bother you if you’ve made it through other Coen Brothers epics, and the Texas details are beautifully rendered, especially when you consider how few of the responsible parties are natives of the Lone Star State. (One of the most convincing accents is offered by the actress Kelly Macdonald — who’s Scottish.) Tommy Lee Jones, who is Texan, gives a typically beautiful, restrained performance as the Sheriff, a worthy cousin not only to Fargo’s Marge Gunderson but also to Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor. At points, I found myself wondering how Mayberry would cope with an almost inhuman killing machine like Javier Bardem, who won Best Supporting Actor last night.

Like Barney Fife, he doesn’t use bullets.

Renamed this year the Euroscars™, prizes went to so many foreigners that you’d think America was No Country for Winners. This morning, all France is excited by Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress win for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Môme. Though I preferred Julie Christie’s luminous performance in Away from Her, Cotillard did a terrific job, creating a vivid character out of a real-life figure whom everybody in this country remembers and reveres, and she held together a strikingly diffuse, lengthy picture. But that’s art. What counts for her compatriots this morning is that she won the sacrée statuette.

Rien à regretter: Cotillard

The French are unaccustomed to winning. It feels good. They like it. To cover their bases, they awarded Cotillard a César on Friday night, but winning on American soil — ça, c’est autre chose. Marion follows in the steps of another national heroine, Simone Signoret, who won the Best Actress Oscar for Room at the Top, in 1959, and she’s the first French actor to win an Oscar for a performance entirely in French. This is cause for national celebration. The newspapers and radio would talk of nothing else, were it not for the fact that Marion has been upstaged by the President, who has been using the French language in another manner altogether.

Visiting the annual fair, the Salon d’Agriculture, on Saturday, Nicolas Sarkozy was doing the meet-and-greet in a bustling crowd when one man refused to shake his hand. “Tu me salis,” the man said (“You soil me,” using the informal “tu”). Sarkozy snapped back, “Casse-toi, alors, pauvre con” (“Then screw off, asshole”). A possibly defensible rejoinder, were it not for the fact that he’s President of the Republic, and expected to maintain a certain dignity, and what’s worse, the whole exchange was recorded. You can watch the clip on YouTube, and if you’re French, you began your day by doing just that.

Barnyard language at the agricultural fair?

Buyer’s remorse has taken hold of the country. The French were uncomfortable with Sarkozy’s “American” ideas of the presidency, a hands-on and spotlight-hogging management style. His divorce made them uneasy, too, but his marriage, a mere three months later, to Carla Bruni, a bed-hopping supermodel and pop star, pretty much freaked them out. Turn up the ratchet one more time: it’s been revealed that, shortly before the wedding, Sarkozy sent a text message to his ex-wife: “If you come back, I’ll cancel everything.” And it’s widely speculated that Bruni is pregnant, which could mean that the bachelor Sarkozy was having unprotected sex with a near-stranger (and one who’s well-known for her sexual exploits), in a country that’s been battered by AIDS.

Historically, the French seldom minded their leaders’ womanizing. What a man did in bed said nothing about his policies. Just one example: Napoléon III married the decorously devout Empress Eugénie and restored the Catholic Church to something like its pre-Revolutionary authority, while making out like a bandit with anything in a hoop skirt. And in similar fashion, all kinds of personal misbehavior got swept under the political carpet. Now the French are beginning to wonder if the old American bromide, “Character counts,” isn’t valid after all.

Sarkozy has popped off before — last year, he threatened to get into a fistfight with some heckling fisherman — but he was merely a candidate for President at the time. And it’s becoming clear that incidents of hot temper and hasty judgment are not isolated in this man’s life.

The other big headline this weekend is Raúl Castro’s widely anticipated election to the Presidency of Cuba, replacing his brother Fidel. Raúl is 76, as is the first Vice President, José Ramón Machado Ventura. Ricardo Alarcón, 70, was reelected president of the National Assembly. This confirms that there is at least one country for old men. It’s Cuba.