Posters for the film - which show the contented male stars with faceless women in submissive positions - went up Tuesday but were being taken down Friday following a request from France’s self-regulating advertising body.
In one poster, actor and comedian Jean Dujardin stands between a pair of upside-down bare female legs, clutching them. In another, the back of a woman’s head is waist high to actor Gilles Lellouche, who is on his cell phone. Her hands stretch up to his chest and a quotation over his head reads: "It’s going to cut off. I’m going into a tunnel."
"We could see that this campaign didn’t respect (the rules) with the sexually explicit positions, the play on words ... the boundaries were crossed," said Stephane Martin, the head of the Authority of Professional Regulation of Advertising.
Some French newspapers have suggested the ads could even cost Dujardin - nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the silent hit film "The Artist"- the Oscar.
They at least appear to have hit a raw nerve in a land with fresh memories of the scandal of last year’s arrest of potential presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape.
JC Decaux, the outdoor advertising company that hung the posters, conceded they weren’t in "good taste" and they would all be down by the end of the day.
"We already refused other visuals for this film that seemed unpublishable to us," the company said in a statement - without elaborating on what those images contained.
To some, the rumblings may indicate a post-Strauss-Kahn shift in French mores. When the former head of the International Monetary Fund was arrested last year in New York - on charges later dropped - it set off soul-searching in a country known as a beacon for the sexually liberated and for its acceptance of extramarital affairs. Had the posters revived questions over whether France’s reputed sexual liberation is a one-way street and largely disenfranchising to women?
Not quite, according to Osez le Feminisme, a French feminist organization. Magali Dehaas, a spokeswoman for the group, said that while she hoped the incident would prompt a rethink about sexism in advertising, she feared that the images shocked more for their sexually explicit content than for their depiction of women. She said Strauss-Kahnn’s arrest may have started the wheels turning, but "we have a lot of work to do in that department."
Sure enough, on the streets of Paris, some were left scratching their heads over why the ads had caused such a stir, given that French advertising is no foreigner to the racy. Yogurt is sold by bare-chested women on mainstream TV and a current ad pretends to show a man and woman having sex in the middle of their open-plan office - until we learn he is just applying a hot compress to her back.
"I am more shocked by the fact that the billboard was changed, because for me, there was nothing shocking," said Corinne Maugrenier, 37, as the posters came down Friday. "I think that we are moving toward a puritan system as in the United States."
French newspapers were suggesting Friday that Dujardin might lose his Oscar to the stunt.
"America doesn’t kid at all with these kind of dirty photos," Le Parisien wrote.
Le Figaro suggested that those promoting rival actors might "play on the Puritanism" of the Academy’s members to discredit Dujardin in the notoriously fierce competition.
The company that distributes the film in France, Mars Distribution, did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Dujardin and the film also declined.