The César awards are happening tonight, and they are shaping up to be the most tense and generally noteworthy ceremony in years, for a variety of reasons... I feel like this might interest people here and it doesn't seem like anyone in the anglosphere is paying much attention to it, so I figured I'd inform people a bit about it.
The big thing you may have heard of is that Roman Polanski had a film out this year in France, J'accuse (An Officer and a Spy is the international title). If that title doesn't immediately evoke something for you, you are probably not familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which is what the film is about. It's the most famous scandal in the history of the French republic, and it's basically about a Jewish officer wrongfully accused of being a German spy (this was in the late 1890s). I can't really overemphasize how massive this was, how profoundly it divided the country at the time... people still identified as "dreyfusard" (pro-Dreyfus) and "anti-dreyfusard" in the 1950s, long after Dreyfus was rehabilited. Jean Dujardin plays the lieutenant who blew the whistle on the part of the whole thing which prompted Emile Zola to write his famous editorial ("J'accuse"), and that's what the film is about. This is all relevant because it partly explain why this film was a pretty sizable success at the box-office (on par with something like Pokémon Detective Pikachu to give you a frame of reference)... and why it got 12 César nominations, including Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations for Polanski specifically.
On that note, it's also worth noting that Polanski and the César have a long-standing love story going on. Before this year, Polanski had garnered 11 nominations at the César and 8 wins, which means only one person has won more César than he has (Jacques Audiard)... in fact, the César Academy was going to have him be the "president of the ceremony" in 2017, which I don't think there is an equivalent at the Oscars but it's basically a famous person with gravitas who shows up once or twice during the ceremony and generally gives a speech about... I don't know, the magic of the movies ? Whatever the case, this proved to be a controversial choice then and the Academy backed down. Last year they did a whole #MeToo thing, which brings me to my next piece of important context...
The #MeToo movement in France has been, well, very different from the US. When #MeToo happened, there was a lot of support for it in France at first, but pretty quickly it became obvious that we were not really there yet. There was this tribune in Le Monde signed by a bunch of famous French industry people (including Catherine Deneuve) all about how we shouldn't succumb to witch hunts and how #MeToo was basically a puritanic reactionary movement, but I think the key difference was mostly that we didn't get a Harvey Weinstein. An evil figure for everyone to rally against. Besson got a bunch of accusations and is still mired in lawsuits (though he's won some of them), but you certainly didn't see the big change that you saw in Hollywood, even though it did make sexual harrasment a huge subject in French society as a whole.
Then, in november of this year, Adèle Haenel spoke about being abused by a director (Christophe Ruggia) when she was 12 to 15 years old (meaning this went on for some time). This did not seem to be picked up by American media despite Portrait having the run that it did strangely, but it was a huge deal here, and single-handedly revitalized the whole movement within the industry specifically... especially because it happened right around the time that J'accuse was released in theaters. Adèle Haenel is now the face of the #MeToo movement in France essentially. She was famous to French cinephiles before, having won two César awards already, but she's now a major cultural figure which she definitely wasn't before, and of course she's nominated.
So that's the scene, right ? Polanski won't be there but he's nominated, Portrait has 10 nominations, J'accuse has 12, that's the story ? Well, yes, but there's more. First of all you've got Les misérables in there, with as many nominations as J'accuse has and an equally hot political issue (police violence) at the core of it, but even if we ignore that... a week ago, the directory of the César Academy resigned, and believe it or not, it had nothing to do with Polanski. Well, not directly anyway.
What happened was this: a month before the ceremony, there is an event that's called "La Soirée des Révélations", which is all about the rising stars of French cinema, specifically the people who are shortlisted in the male and female "Espoir" categories, which I guess you would translated as "Rising star" for lack of a better option. At this ceremony (which is not televised, it's really just an industry thing), they're allowed to chose "godfather/mothers", ie established people in the industry, generally. Two of the people in question chose Virginie Despentes and Claire Denis respectively. Virginie Despentes is an author and a filmmaker known for her provocative and controversial work, such as her film Baise-moi (CINECAST! Me), and is generally categorized within the "New French Extremity" movement alongside the likes of Gaspar Noé... I'm going to assume you know who Claire Denis is, but let me disabuse you of the notion that she is part of the French cinema establishment: she is very much at the margins of it. Think like someone like David Cronenberg : they know her and occasionally respect parts of her work, but she's not part of that world.
Well, that proved quite evident in the fact that, along with Despentes, she was mysterious rejected by the Academy to be part of this event. It was actually more insidious than that: they told the young actors who had chosen them that they were not available, but in fact it came to light that they had never even been contacted by anyone, so really they were just blacklisted. This was revealed a few days later and that caused a more general outrage on how opaque the whole organzation is, an outrage no doubt fueled by what I explained above, but not directly about that, and this all lead to the resignation of a bunch of people at the César Academy just over a week before the ceremony.
As for the ceremony itself, well it's happening tonight, and it's hosted by comedian Florence Foresti, which... she's done this before and she's pretty decent at it, but the more interesting part is that she also announced the nominations, and had a probably voluntary slip of the tongue when she announced Polanski's nomination for Best Director, saying he was nominated for "I am accused" rather than "I accuse" (J'accuse). Oops ? Anyway, she has refused to answer questions about how she will adress this whole mess, which is another element going into this.
So there you go. This ended up being way longer than I thought it was going to be, and I guess many of won't read it because of that which I perfectly understand. If you have, hopefully you now understand why this is a particularly interesting edition of an awards ceremony that is always much more unpredictable than the Oscars by virtue of there being no precusors, but is even more so this year. And if you think Portrait is an overwhelming favorite because it's had this rapturous reception in the US, think again: it's only fourth in nominations and the battle is generally thought of as being mainly between J'accuse and Les misérables for the top awards, to the point that a Portrait win would undoubtedly be interpreted as a pointed, #MeToo-influenced choice.