France’s annual César awards ceremony is one of the most prestigious and glamorous nights of the year for the French film industry. But the 1,700 guests may well be dusting off their gowns and tuxes with a sense of trepidation for this year’s event on February 28.
The red carpet arrivals at the Salle Pleyel in central Paris are set to be a rowdy affair with women’s rights activists planning to picket the ceremony in protest against the fact that controversial director Roman Polanski’s An Officer And A Spy garnered the most nominations in the first round of voting.
The 12 nominations for the period drama, that explores the events around France’s real-life 19th Century Dreyfus Affair, came less than three months after fresh rape allegations against Polanski by a French photographer emerged.
Even before that, Polanski’s reputation remained tainted by the sexual abuse case involving a 13-year-old child in Los Angeles in 1977, for which he has never stood trial despite pleading guilty to statuary rape at the time.
Polanski denied the fresh allegations in November - the fifth such accusation against him since the 1977 case - saying in an interview with Paris Match that the timing of their publication in the Le Parisien newspaper on the eve of the film’s French release had been an attempt “to sabotage” the film.
But France’s secretary for equality Marlène Schiappa is one of those who have asked publicly what the show of support for Polanski and his film from the César’s 4,680 voting members says about the French film industry’s commitment to stamping out sexual harassment and gender inequality in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
“I ask myself what message is being sent out,” she told the media following the nominations last week. “It seems French cinema hasn’t finished its revolution with regards to sexist and sexual violence. #MeToo began with cinema. It’s important that cinema doesn’t now result in a setback for women.”
The French Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques, which runs the awards and is also known as the César Academy, is now coming under scrutiny itself for the way it is run and the composition of its members in terms of gender and age. Its support for Polanski’s film has provoked a public debate in France about whether the film should even have been allowed into the consideration list, given the historic unresolved charge against the director.
Some commentators have asked whether a membership with a 50:50 gender split and a younger demographic would have voted in the same way.
Its long-time president, Alain Terzian, told the French media after the nominations announcement it was not the César Academy’s role to take a moral position.
Mounting troubles for the César Academy
But Polanski’s 12 nominations are not the only controversy troubling the César Academy, the awards of which are named after sculpture César Baldaccini who created their distinctive polished bronze trophy.
Terzian has been in the spotlight in recent weeks following revelations by the Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF) in mid-January that he had tinkered with the guest list for another César Academy event in such a way that shut out female directors Claire Denis and Virginie Despentes.
SRF’s complaints related to the César Academy’s annual Soirée des Révélations spotlighting emerging talent, which traditionally takes place in mid-January.
Under the initiative, the selected young talents nominate an established actor or director to accompany them to a gala dinner, whom the César Academy is then supposed to invite. The SRF said it had discovered that requests for Denis and Despentes had never been honoured.
In the case of Baise-moi co-director Despentes, a request by actor Jean-Christophe Folly (Blind Spot) for her to be his guest was refused outright, prompting him to turn down his own invitation. Folly’s agent Sebastien Perrolat at top Paris agency Time Art and Blind Spot producer Patrick Sobelman at Agat Films contacted the SRF about what had happened.
A second case involved a request for Denis by Amadou Mbow, the male co-star of Mati Diop’s Cannes grand jury prize winner Atlantics. He was told Denis was not available. But when Diop, who starred in Denis’s 2008 feature 35 Shots Of Rum, contacted the filmmaker herself, the director said she had never been contacted by the César Academy. After Diop complained, Denis was hastily invited and made the event.
“We would like some explanations from Alain Terzian with regards to these opaque and discriminatory actions, which are unworthy of the association over which he presides,” said SRF in a statement.
Terzian denied there had been a deliberate move to keep Denis and Despentes away from the evening. In an interview with French film trade paper Le Film Francais, he claimed the guest list was often amended to ensure a mix of actors and directors.
The incident has provoked deeper scrutiny of other parts of the Academy’s operations.
Following SRF’s lead, the Syndicate for Independent Producers (Le SPI) wrote a separate open letter requesting clarification on how the organisation runs its finances and asking for more transparency around the association which controls the body and the membership application process.
Under a structure put in place by the Césars’ late founder and producer Georges Cravenne in 1974, the Césars Academy is currently run by the not-for-profit Association for the Promotion of Cinema (APC), while its income from membership fees, awards participation fees and diffusion rights and costs are in turn managed by a private company named Europe Cinéma Évènement (ECE), over which Terzian presides.
Only a narrow band of French film professionals currently meet the criteria to belong to the APC.
Candidates have to have won an Oscar; or be a former president of the National Cinema Centre (CNC); or be a managing director of ECE; or a professional who has played a strong role in supporting cinema in France and the Academy. There is no transparency on how the latter members are recruited. The association presently has 47 members.
Within the APC, there is a core association bureau, which comprises Terzian, director Danièle Thompson, journalist and filmmaker Philippe Labro, producer Margaret Ménégoz, former Cannes president Gilles Jacob and director Tonie Marshall. Their average age is 77.
Professionals applying for membership need to be sponsored by existing members and have a five-year track record in a cinema-related profession. A final hurdle is gaining the approval of the association board, which processes the new candidates at the beginning of every November, to give a response at the end of that month.
There have been numerous complaints from potential applicants who say they have been refused membership without reason despite having sponsors and relevant experience.
In response to the letter, Terzian hastily called a meeting with Le SPI vice-president Marie Masmonteil at which he clarified the body’s financial operations and pledged to reform the body to improve its transparency and diversity. Masmonteil put out another open statement saying she was satisfied with his explanation on the finances and that she looked forward to fruitful cooperation in the future on how to improve transparency and diversity at the body.
The César Academy would “be exemplary” in this endeavour, Terzian said at the beginning of the nominations press conference last week.
Speaking to Screen, Le SPI managing director Olivier Zegna-Rata said the body had no desire to target Terzian in person, praising the work he had done for the Césars over the years.
“It’s simply a case that the Césars need to evolve,” he said. “We’ve agreed to work together in consultation with Alain to come up with proposals that will result in Césars that better reflect the diversity of French cinema and also open it up to younger members. It needs to modernise and feminise.”