The Césars 2020: A Shameful Evening for French Cinema

“They wanted to separate the man from the artist, today they are separating the artists from the world.”

Adèle Haenel for Mediapart, written by Marine Turchi

Outside of the Salle Pleyel in Paris, the locale for France’s César Awards there was open fire before the event even began. The blaze would  continue to burn long after the ceremony’s end. Hundreds upon hundreds of angry, frustrated, fervent protesters pushed against the barricades of the establishment for hours, donning signs, banners, and open flames. However, their protests would fall on deaf ears.  Actress Adèle Haenel would stand up and storm out of the venue, screaming “Shame!”, followed by director Céline Sciamma, and several other attendees after Claire Denis and Emmanuelle Bercot announced that Roman Polanski, convicted child rapist, would be awarded Best Director. 

Florence Foresti, image courtesy of the Césars 2020 

The evening was one of thick, palpable tension, propagated by tone-deaf jokes, unresponsive calling-out, and a lack of solidarity with those who were affected the most by nominations. The list of nominations was released at the end of January, and was grotesquely headed by J’Accuse, the Roman Polanski film about the historical Dreyfus affair, with a staggering twelve nominations. Many anglophones may be unfamiliar with this film due to the lack of distribution in English-speaking countries as a result of Polanski’s fugitive status in Hollywood, after being convicted of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977 among multiple other accusations. As long as he rests in the patriarchal grasp of the European Union, not stepping foot in the United Kingdom or in the United States, he will continue to see success in his films, especially in France, where he is applauded for his bravery rather than imprisoned for his monstrosity.

Aïssa Maïga, image courtesy the Césars 2020 

The entire lead up to J’Accuse’s unjust successes was filled with lukewarm attempts to promote diversity, while dodging genuine opportunities to speak out about the travesty at hand. Florence Foresti, a comedian and host of the Césars, made several offbeat comments about Polanski’s nominations:.. , “…Grâce à Dieu, is about pedophilia in the church. J’accuse, is about pedophilia in the 70’s” and “There are twelve moments where we will have a problem tonight.” Yet these jabs were dampened by the laughter and lack of accountability of the audience, who are quick to brush over  the subject. 

Foresti’s more radical counterpart was Aïssa Maïga, a Franco-Senegalese actress who made the  announcement for Most Promising Actor. Maïga took her time to call out the racial inequities and whitewashing in French cinema, airing out everyone’s dirty laundry because “we are a family, right?”. The discomfort of the audience manifested in professionals playing on their phones (for which they were called out by Maïga), looks of disgust, hostility, and silence so profound that live-stream viewers from across the world could hear a pin drop. 

From the very beginning,  the lack of recognition for Portrait of a Lady on Fire was incredibly suspect. However, it was not until Céline Sciamma was snubbed for Best Screenplay – after taking home the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay –  that there was confirmation of a boycott. . After receiving validation from one of the most impressive international film festivals in the world yet going unnoticed in the face of the Académie, the vendetta against the Portrait crew has not gone unnoticed. It is difficult to say whether this was France turning a blind eye to genuine female representation on screen, or the antipathy built towards Adèle Haenel, who had previously come out with child sexual assault allegations against a once honored French director, Christophe Ruggia. Each subsequent award Portrait was nominated for was handed off to another film, leaving them with only Best Cinematography for Claire Mathon. The announcement of Best Director though, was the “last gram in a chemistry experiment that made everything emerge” prompting a courageous and just exit of Adèle Haenel, Céline Sciamma, Noémie Merlant, and over a dozen others just before the announcement of Best Film. 

At the beginning of the ceremony, host Foresti jokingly proclaimed that the evening would be the “last Césars, I mean-45th Césars” ceremony. However, as a result of local and international retaliation, this may not be far from reality. The value of cinema naturally decreases when the art at stake is tainted by soiled fingers, and the necessary voices are not heard. The world will not remember every sly comment, acceptance speech, or winner from last night’s ceremony. But the world will remember the silence, and all eyes are on France now.

Header image courtesy of the Césars 2020