The Complex Social Politics at Play in France’s César Awards

The César awards are the equivalent to the Oscars in France. With Korean director Bong Joon-Ho calling the Oscars a ‘local awards show’, we must turn to other countries outside the United States to see the best of world cinema awarded. France is often the country leading the pack of heavily discussed films from around the world, with the French new wave, new French extremity, and Cinéma du look as some of the most canonised film movements. Lately, France has been losing its cinematic prestige outside of Europe, only making the Oscars shortlist a handful of times in the past ten years. To understand recent French cinema, we must look at their own awards bodies, often equally as regressive as our own in America. This year’s nominations have social politics at the forefront, with three front-runners in particular each making a very different statement about what the Césars want to highlight.

First there’s J’Accuse. It’s a re-telling of a well-known historical event involving a falsely imprisoned French officer. Oh, and one more thing: it’s made by renowned director, and renowned rapist, Roman Polanski. Then there’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a lesbian romance film, directed by a lesbian that takes a feminist stance on the relationship between art and subject. Last but not least, there’s Les Miserables, directed by black filmmakers Ladj Ly. It’s an expose about how racism and police power dynamics affect the residents of the Paris banlieues, using parallels to the novel of the same name to show more than just class struggle. These three films each create their own statement for the awards; will the top prize stand for the old guard of filmmakers, for women telling their stories with respect, or for a confrontation of social issues faced in parts of Paris so often ignored.

With a new wave of diverse filmmakers, and a movement of women coming forward about abuse within the industry, France must learn to adapt. The old regime of film is still alive there, and they refuse to change. Take Roman Polanski for example; a petition to allow him to be cleared of any charges was signed by over 100 film industry professionals, most being French. Only three have retracted their statements since. Actress Adèle Haenel has led this wave, and she and the rest of the Portrait of a Lady on Fire team being nominated alongside Polanski is telling of the crossroads that France stands at. This, alongside films like Atlantics and Les Miserables from black filmmakers show that France must make a choice between progress and keeping within their circles.

Mati Diop winning the Grand Prix at Cannes for Atlantics

Even the French realise their own problems. At the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, subject to the #BAFTASsowhite backlash this year after the all white acting nominees, French director Céline Sciamma said that there was so much more diversity there, yet it still wasn’t enough, and that in France they haven’t reached what passes for ‘bare minimum’ yet. When French films from diverse perspectives do get recognition outside of France, their home country often positions them as unnecessary, amateur, or too niche for internal success. Take Mati Diop’s Cannes Grand Prix winner Atlantics for example— the film only received three César nominations, all in the newcomer categories. While it is Diop’s feature narrative debut, she is certainly not a newcomer in the industry, having starred in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, as well as other acting and short film directing work. Their problem is recognising that a black woman’s debut not only won a prestigious Cannes prize, but went on to gain international recognition without them.

The film made the Oscars shortlist, but was submitted by its other country of production, Senegal, instead of France. Atlantics wasn’t even on the final shortlist (which may have also been due to its status as a co-production with another country, so France may be able to pass here), which had France deciding between Les Miserables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Alice Winocour’s motherhood-centered astronaut drama Proxima. Les Miserables was chosen, notable because it is France’s first submission from a black director, picked due to the film’s timely social relevance. While it resonated with general moviegoers in France due to its reveal of over-policing and brutality in black and brown neighbourhoods, it did not have the same effect in America. Over here, it seems the audience either no longer cares to watch the truth of police brutality, or many are turned off by what they see as the film’s more centrist approach to the issue. Les Miserables takes a stance that harsh police regimes take a toll on everyone, partially focusing on a black cop named Ruiz who struggles to side with either his white supremacist qualities, or the neighbourhood of black Muslims he is meant to be policing. The story is mainly told from the perspective of the cops, and shows the tensions in a way that depicts both sides as being harmful at times. It’s also worth noting that at awards shows so far, such as the Lumieres, the actors playing the cruel cops are the ones who are winning, not those playing the young men fighting back, as those are the actors given more to work with. Sure, it’s not perfect, but Les Miserables is the closest France has come to acknowledging any of the issues that befall the population the media likes to pretend is either invisible or dangerous, depending on how openly biased they feel like being.

Leading the pack with twelve nominations, Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse (also titled The Officer and the Spy in overseas markets) is a rehashed story of a man falsely accused. Following the Dreyfus Affair, in which false evidence was used to convict Alfred Dreyfus (one of the few Jewish members of the French Army) of passing secrets to Germany, the story has been put to film many times, starting in 1919, as seen above. It is not a new story, or an untold one, so why tell it now? Director Roman Polanski sits on a mountain of credible rape and other sexual abuse allegations from multiple women, some of whom were children at the time of the incidents. Many in the industry feel he has been over-vilified, and Polanski himself wants to discredit these women coming forward, most recently French actress Valentine Monnier coming forward to say he raped her as a teenager in a ski chalet in 1975, by reminding the world of those historically falsely accused. It’s a dangerous idea he wants to bring up, the ‘white men are vilified’ factor that so many conservative Americans also believe in. Even when having the conversation about separating art from artist, the film’s themes are entrenched in Polanski’s accusations; they are the motivation for its creation, so they become textual. “In the story I sometimes find moments I have experienced myself” says Polanski himself, sealing the deal of what message he is trying to spread.

It’s not even that France doesn’t care who is involved with the awards. According to Screen Daily, directors Virginie Despentes and Claire Denis have not been allowed to attend events as guests of nominees. It’s worth noting the two are not rapists, but have made films that offended the sensibilities of the French public (Denis is known for erotic cannibal film Trouble Every Day, and Despentes is known for the violent, sexually-explicit rape revenge thriller Baise-Moi). Polanski may have been forced out of the position as president, but he is still readily allowed a seat at the table. The two women are open feminists, with Despentes being a well-known writer, and a close friend of director  Cèline Sciamma, who is currently nominated for the directing prize. They are not allowed in because of the art they create, but a known predator is given a further platform.

Celine Sciamma and the cast of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Perhaps the most direct conflict is sweeping lesbian art romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel’s call for J’Accuse screenings to be accompanied by discussions on separating art from artist. “The César awards are literally inviting an actor who was a victim of sexual assault by a director when she was a child (Adèle Haenel), and a director who sexually abused a child (Roman Polanski), to be in the same room together for a big celebration of film.” says British critic Caspar Salmon. By honouring both, the Césars are not taking the neutral stance they think they are, but the stance of non-action that becomes the tool of the oppressor. Haenel has become the voice of a movement pushing for justice after speaking up about having been sexually abused by director Christophe Ruggia at the age of twelve. In an investigation with Mediapart, she details what happened to her, along with testimonies from witnesses, and describes the industry powers that made her stay silent. Her words resonated with many, but were also met with backlash from men who believed she spoke up too long after. At a recent series of women’s protests in France against male violence, signs like “Adèle Haenel, merci pour le feu” and “nous sommes les jeunes filles en feu” were seen referencing Haenel’s latest film, a march that Haenel herself attended alongside former partner Cèline Sciamma.

She isn’t the only nominee in direct conflict with Polanski’s presence. Just under the top tier of most nominated films sits François Ozon’s By the Grace of God. A drama about a man looking back upon, and confronting, the sexual abuse he experienced as a young boy scout at the hands of a priest, it’s a look into the normalisation of cruelty. Sure, it’s a direct call-out of the Catholic church specifically,  but the covering up and denial of predators in positions of power is universal beyond one organisation. It seems hypocritical to praise an actress who’s been calling out the normalisation of sexual assault on a large scale, and a film that does the same, while still giving a platform to a man that is that exact problem within the industry.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not the popular choice in France we may think it is. Despite universally glowing reviews worldwide, and a dedicated following, many men in France chastise the film for ‘lacking sensuality’. The film’s use of female gaze, and its condemnation of inequality between artist and muse make it an antithesis to the popular Blue is the Warmest Colour, known for its exploitative sex scenes and claims of abuse by director Abellatif Kechiche. It portrays the relationship between the two women as one of equals, and the conflict of Haenel’s character’s impending marriage is only present in the background, as the relationship between the two women is the sole focus, not the obstacles that eventually separate them. 

Actresses Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant are nominated in the same lead actress category, where their biggest competition in the case of vote splitting is Proxima star Eva Green. Green isn’t removed from the Polanski situation either; in an interview with Bangkok Post she says “No. Because he has always been very correct with me. That’s why I can face the promotion of the film. I did not forbid any questions. I do not try to defend him, I just know he has always behaved with me with great kindness” when asked whether she has any regrets about working with Roman Polanski on a film in 2017. This furthers how deep it is believed that Adèle Haenel had a near-guaranteed best actress win, as this would not be her first trophy at the ceremony (at which she came out as a lesbian and in a relationship with fellow out lesbian Cèline Sciamma when winning for Suzanne a few years back), until she pushed many male voters over the edge by speaking out about her own abuse in November. Now the category is a three way race between the two co-stars and Green, due to the anger many have at Haenel for her outspoken feminism. Director Cèline Sciamma is in a similar position, nominated against all men, with many not wanting her to win because her film ‘excludes men’ (Portrait of a Lady on Fire  does not have a single named male character).

With two of the three front-runners being directly opposing statements on the treatment of women in the industry, Les Miserables has a clearer path to win best film. It has already done some good, raising awareness of the treatment of the residents of poor neighbourhoods, and calling out the mayor of the area who perpetuates it. The film is certainly not without its criticisms; film critic Robert Daniels from 812 Film Reviews says “While Ly’s narrative of class and racial tensions between Black Muslim project dwellers and the abusive cops who patrol their streets offers stressfully stitched periods of suspense, the portrayal of the Black victims lack depth”. The worry is that the ceremony will give the film the top prize, and then pat themselves on the back for progress they have not yet accomplished. It will become about being the first, and the road of injustices leading up to it will likely be ignored. 

No matter the winners, more should be done, both onstage and off, to address the prejudices and free passes given within the French film industry. Wonderful progress has been made in some areas, with a large chance that cinematographer Claire Mathon will rightfully win for her work on Atlantics and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. There’s also the massive win for disability portrayed on screen with multiple nominations for Hors Normes. No matter the outcome, we must not forget that there is still progress to be made. At the end of Les Miserables, the screen fades to black and a quote from Victor Hugo’ Les Misérables comes up: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”. The film has been able to gain the success it has because it blames the individual corruption of the cops, not the system as a whole. By blaming the individual, most of the audience does not have to implicate themselves, and no longer has to fear a confrontation of their own bigotry, only that of others. While this is not the fully radical statement on policing that needs to be heard, it is a step to even begin to discuss the flaws in these systematic power dynamics, and an important one at that.

Change is coming. After outrage at Polanski’s success, most of the board has been coerced into quitting, leading to a possible new, democratic future for this French Academy. While this year’s nominations won’t change, many outspoken feminist organisers have been able to bring some awareness, or perhaps shame, to the powers at play. It’s not a sweeping apology with reparations, but it’s a start, an acknowledgement that these rules need to change, and the processes should be public, if they want to maintain relevance.

by Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is a film writer who loves Portrait of a Lady on Fire, empathetic foreign cinema, experimental films that give you headaches, but mainly just Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She is currently directing her first feature film, which feels like it’ll never be finished, and will be the first to reclaim New French Extremity classic Martyrs as a feminist film (ironically or not, we shall not know). You can find her on Twitter @peppermintsodas and on Letterboxd @dselwyns

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