The Cesar Awards Spectacle Embodies the French Industry’s Enduring Contradictions

After last year’s scandal over Roman Polanski’s director win, the 46th Cesar Awards, France’s highest film honors, which took place on Friday in the presence of nominees, has been the subject of vitriolic criticism from industry figures.

Some have claimed that the spectacle was so vulgar that it has tarnished the image of French cinema and will discourage audiences from returning to theaters when they finally reopen. But, in fact, the awards were a fitting encapsulation of an industry that’s increasingly at odds with itself.

The 2021 edition marked a new era for the Cesar Awards, which is now headed by Veronique Cayla, former president of Arte, and vice chaired by Eric Toledano, co-director of “The Intouchables,” who took over from Alain Terzian following an industry revolt over the lack of transparency and democracy within the institution. With the last six months, the operating model and corporate leadership of the Cesar Awards were reformed and roughly 500 new voting members were recruited.

Emceed by the outspoken French actor Marina Fois, the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony, which aired on the pay-TV channel Canal Plus, had a more irreverent tone than usual with one too many sexually explicit jokes and toilet humor; political speeches bashing the government’s handling of the pandemic, the closure of theaters, police brutality and racism; and an actor, Corinne Masiero, who appeared on stage covered with fake blood and eventually stripped naked with a message of support for freelance industry workers scrawled on her body (pictured above).

But in such a tumultuous year that saw Black Lives Matter protests, a spike in Islamist attacks in France, hot debates over secularism and Republican values, and an ongoing pandemic that has impacted people’s livelihoods and shut down cultural venues, could we really expect Fois and the ceremony’s co-writers Laurent Laffite (who made that infamous Woody Allen joke on the opening night of Cannes in 2016) and Blanche Gardin to hold their punches?

The ceremony was modestly produced and smaller in attendance, with only 10% of guests compared with a normal year. Other notable absences were those of Dominique Boutonnat, president of the National Film Board (CNC) who was recently indicted for sexual assault, as well as France’s Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot, who was mocked on stage for her recently published book “Ma Vie en Rose,” in which she provides a recipe for pasta with Gorgonzola, and blamed for doing too little to reopen cinemas.

Speaking to French radio station RTL on Tuesday, Bachelot had harsh words for the ceremony. “It’s heartbreaking to see artists ruin their own [professional platform],” she said.

“Cinema is a cultural and creative industry, so the Cesar is a showcase to sell our films internationally. Do you see the image it gave?” said Bachelot of the ceremony. Interestingly, Bachelot appears less concerned about the image France projects to the the world by keeping Boutonnat in place at the helm of the National Film Board while being investigated for sexual assault and attempted rape.

While all film orgs had demanded that the government appoint an interim president — particularly to carry on negotiations with streaming services around the European Union’s AVMS directive — Bachelot refused, arguing that Boutonnat has the “reputation of being innocent.”

It’s also revealing that the historic win of two Black actors — Jean-Pascal Zadi for “Tout Simplement Noir” and Fathia Youssouf for “Cuties,” both of whom won best newcomers — has been mostly overlooked by commentators. Fortunately, as only three Black actors had previously won in more than 40 years, it was a big enough deal to dominate coverage of the ceremony, rather than Masiero’s striptease. But when Zadi dared to name the very few Black creatives who have received Cesar Awards before him and pay tribute to Adama Traoré and the music producer Michel Zecler, both French victims of police brutality, the actor was slammed by critics.

And yet, why can’t Zadi be political? Award shows are all about politically-charged speeches, and it seems that Zadi, who has faced prejudice and struggled for years to get his film made because he “didn’t look like a director,” according to some French producers, had every right to speak out.

In many ways, the discontent over this ceremony embodies an ongoing conflict of generations, values and political stances within the French film industry and, to a larger extent, French society. That widening gap was already obvious last year when Polanski was voted best director by Cesar voters for his film “An Officer and a Spy.” While some segments of the industry were scandalized, another part quietly voted for Polanski.

And while there are still no Black creatives on the Cesar boards, the new faces that this Cesar ceremony put forward as award presenters and winners underscore a willingness to be more inclusive, and possibly appeal to younger audiences who are used to watching content on streaming services with more diversity than on French broadcasters.

We can all agree on one thing, however: there is plenty of room for improvement for the Cesar ceremony, beginning with its lengthy format. Further, because it’s a televised show, a middle ground must be found in terms of tone and humour to avoid alienating the more conservative audiences. Expectations were understandably high this year with the new leadership, and it will probably take another year to get the full picture of what a revamped Cesar Academy can accomplish.

As for those who believe that an awards ceremony will impact moviegoing in France, the bottom line is that if the films are there and they’re good, there’s no doubt that French people will flock to the movie theaters once they reopen.

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