France Doesn’t Really Care About the Oscars

Suddenly, I knew how Sandra Bullock's character felt in "Gravity," 9 hours and 5,650 miles away on Hollywood's most important night

Gravity Publicists Awards

I will never take the Oscars for granted again.

In the United States, the Academy Awards show is second only to NFL games when it comes to must-see TV — and within the Hollywood circles I frequented, the Oscars were tops — so finding a social setting in which to watch has never been a problem. Here in Paris, it’s another matter entirely.

The Oscars aired two weeks to the day after my relocation to what many consider the seat of cinephilia, and I spent a good percentage of my adjustment period here polling locals on how or where to watch the show. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with this problem, as U.S. journalists in town for Paris Fashion Week scrambled to find Oscar parties as well (although, as I came to find, most were only interested in the red carpet, which wraps 3½ hours earlier).

But I was in for a rude awakening. This may be Hollywood’s big night, but France doesn’t really care about the Oscars — or the “American Cesars,” as some here condescendingly refer to the yankee show (the Cesars, of course, being where the French Academy confers its own national awards two nights earlier).

Last year, “Amour” competed for several Oscars, which gave some Parisians reason to tune in, and the year before that, “The Artist” won best picture, sparking considerable interest among nationalistic film fans. But this time, the only French nominee was Xavier Legrand’s live-action short film “Avant que de tout perdre,” and cherie, no one was staying up past their bedtime to see if it won (I know, because in my desperation, I sent e-mails to both Legrand and his agent asking whether friends were hosting a viewing party).

Now, before you accuse the French of cultural snobbism — and the charge would not be unfair — you must understand that the Oscars air at 2:30 a.m. Sunday night over here, and the show can only be viewed on pricey pay service Canal Plus. Seeing as how it’s a work night, most people are content to go to bed and discover the winners when they wake up in the morning.

Surely there must be young cineastes — or Americans excited by the Oscars — who were willing to stay up and watch, I figured. But where would they go? Paris abounds with expat bars, many of which host sports games, Super Bowl watching parties and so on throughout the year. But on a Sunday night, nearly all of them close their doors at 2, half an hour before Ellen cracked her first joke. And this particular Sunday, there was an important French soccer match that took precedence.

As my search yielded only dead ends, I tried to imagine the reverse scenario: What if a visiting French film buff approached you in Los Angeles and asked where he could find a Cesar-watching party? Surely, he’d be laughed out of the room. The French can barely be bothered to watch their own national film awards; it’s a stretch to picture them staying up late to see which American movie Hollywood likes most this year. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Cesar viewing hosted by Wild Bunch and Why Not here in Paris last Friday, and I was struck by how different the dynamic is. Those assembled cheered whenever one of the companies’ own films was recognized, but otherwise spent the night in a thick cloud of cigarette smoke mostly ignoring the broadcast.

I ended the evening in passionate conversation with several young Wild Bunch employees about “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but lost nearly all the Cesars’ top prizes to an affable crowd-pleaser called “Me, Myself and Mum.” I asked them about their own Oscar viewing plans, and they swiftly set me straight: I was operating on the assumption that Paris, a place where debate over “Blue” might fuel an hour-long conversation, was a city of cineastes. This much was true. But what I hadn’t considered is that those who take film seriously over here don’t feel the same way toward the Oscars. “It’s kitsch,” one told me.

The thing is, I instantly knew what he meant. The Oscars aren’t so much a celebration of cinema as they are a celebration of Hollywood itself. Certainly the recent wins by “The Artist” and “Argo” illustrate as much. The show is, for all intents and purposes, an American hustle. And the French evidently have other more pressing concerns.

So how did I end up watching the show? The final 24 hours leading up to the broadcast were murder. At one point, I considered hopping on the Eurostar to crash an Oscar party in London, or renting a reasonable-priced hotel room where Canal Plus came standard. I tweeted the American fashion editors who had been quoted in a New York Times story, trying to see whether any had found a solution. I even posted personal ads on dating sites, thinking I might kill two birds with one stone, though in retrospect, I realize that asking to come over to a complete stranger’s place at 2:30 a.m. is not an advisable ice-breaker.

Many stories had been written about how ABC planned to stream the telecast live for the first time this year, though there were so many catches (one had to be a cable subscriber on approved platforms in specific markets), the option was a no-go. I found a wealth of far-from-official websites offering to stream the Oscars for free, but all seemed to be cover jobs for sketchy, likely-illegal subscription services.

And then it occurred to me that maybe the thing that was throwing off my Google investigation was the word “Oscars.” Even if the French don’t watch the show, it’s clear from some of the scripted and reality-show dreck running on the tube here that they have quite an affinity for American TV. How do they watch U.S. shows, I wondered? And that led me to a seemingly legit service called USTVnow, which relays American broadcast signals to expats living abroad in real time (at a quality far better than I was getting from U-verse back in L.A., I might add).

It wasn’t the same watching the show by myself at 2:30 in the morning on my computer screen, but I had Twitter to keep me company, and that made all the difference. Though I’ve certainly multi-tasked live viewing and social-media scanning before (including the past couple Oscar shows), this was the first time I registered the true power of Twitter and how it’s transforming the TV experience. Snark prevails, just as it does in a living room with one’s wittiest friends, but for the first time, it didn’t feel as if the peanut gallery was talking on top of each other, or obscuring the speeches with their one-liners. Paris clearly doesn’t know what it’s missing.

And the award for best tweet of the night? I’ll let you be the judge: