French Artists (Théâtre Royal de Luxe) Strike Out Against Evil American Empire (Coca-Cola)

Théâtre Royal de Luxe, a street-theater company in France, decided to sue an evil American multinational giant, or so it seems. But there are complications: Royal de Luxe is at the confluence of political connections, government subsidies, Coca-Cola commercialism, perhaps even world domination—and certainly, awesome art.

While it performs a variety of street shows, Royal de Luxe is internationally known for its giant marionettes that are suspended from reinvented construction implements or fantasy vehicles. Actors in livery, perched on the implement or swarming around the giant’s ankles, pull on ropes to get the giant to open its eyes, move an arm, turn the head, walk step by halting step…. The shows have been a huge success around the world.

Jean-Luc Courcoult started the theater company in 1979 with a play on the streets of Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. Over the years, styles changed, and the company moved around a bit. In October, 1989, while in Toulouse, according to its own website, “the company received a call from the mayor of Nantes who offered subsidies and the use of a warehouse on the banks of the Loire River.” It was “an offer that could not be refused.”

And that generous mayor? Jean-Marc Ayrault, member of the Socialist Party. He’d been elected a few months earlier, and has since been reelected time and again, while also having been elected to the National Assembly. He who in June, 2012, became the Prime Minister of France. Voilà.

The subsidies of Nantes amount to €300,000 per year currently, just to make sure the theater company remains based in Nantes, though it performs all over the world. Its shows in Nantes are remunerated separately. Last summer, for example, Royal de Luxe produced “Rue de la Chute” with 15 performances—well, 14, one was cancelled—for which it received €800,000. Thus, in 2012, city subsidies amounted to €1.1 million (nearly $1.5 million).

But now it announced that it would sue Coca-Cola Company, whose brand is loved and despised around the world. Over Santa Claus. Or rather a Coca-Cola spot that aired starting in November. It featured a giant Santa Claus marionette.

Turns out, Coca-Cola had contacted Royal de Luxe last May. “They wanted a 12-meter-tall Santa Claus,” the company announced angrily. The 39-foot giant would have to be animated in the same manner of their other giants. But Royal de Luxe declined because it “always refused to serve a brand.” It only accepted corporate sponsorships.

Coca-Cola got the job done elsewhere. Fans, who saw the spot and thought that Royal de Luxe had produced it, expressed “their surprise and repudiated such a collaboration,” the company said. Maybe they wondered how an idealistic group of artists could sell their soul to the evil American marketing empire, or something. The whole team was shocked that Coca-Cola “could appropriate our creation this way,” groused executive producer Gwenaëlle Raux at the time. “I find it scandalous, it’s so flagrant. You recognize the scenographic writing of Jean-Luc Courcoult.”

Royal de Luxe rushed to explain “the deception” to its fans. But now, after some soul-searching concerning the spot—”a sad plagiarism of our giants,” they called it—Royal de Luxe, “faced with such a parasitic, highly injurious usurpation,” acted decisively and “instructed its lawyers to take legal action.”

Alas, Royal de Luxe has no right to Santa Claus, nor has it ever created a Santa Claus giant. And giant marionettes aren’t uncommon. So why does Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus suddenly raise Royal de Luxe’s ire?

The scenographic writing of Jean-Luc Courcoult. In other words, the show as a whole: the giant is trucked to location, the box opens theatrically, the giant rises, opens the eyes, makes gestures, moves the head, and begins walking step by halting step. There are differences, though: Royal de Luxe uses actors in livery who pull the cords that make the giant move; Santa Claus’s ropes were handled by actors who played enthusiastic people from the neighborhood.

Whether or not Royal de Luxe has a case, the symbolism stands out: a French theater company, subsidized by the taxpayer and connected to the Socialist Prime Minister, turned down a major production job because it didn’t want its soul to be sullied by commercialism. Then it lashed out at the worldwide symbol of American mass-marketing and capitalism, pitting its hand-crafted marionettes, its art, and perhaps a couple of lawyers, against a truly giant legal machine. A theme for their next show.

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