The French film industry’s attitude towards sexual abuse and gender equality was in the spotlight like never before as Roman Polanski was feted with best director for An Officer And A Spy (J’Accuse) at the César awards on Friday night.
The ceremony at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in central Paris was a fractious, politically-charged event.
It took place just days after César Academy president Alain Terzian and the entire board of the association overseeing the awards resigned amid criticism over a lack of transparency, gender equality and diversity at the body.
Outside, hundreds of female activists picketed the venue for much of the day and then clashed with police as the 1,700 celebrity guests started arriving on the red carpet.
Inside, the air of unease was palpable as French comedian and actress Florence Foresti, who was the evening’s mistress of ceremonies, at once navigated and took aim at the biggest elephant in the room.
As she presented the front-running films in her opening preamble, she referred to An Officer And A Spy as a film “about pedophilia in the 1970s.”
In another monologue, Foresti poked fun at a popular actor who is under investigation following accusations that he indecently exposed himself to a female masseur in a hotel in Corsica, saying she “understood” how the heat might have caused him to strip naked.
She also took aim at the age difference between 53-year-old actor Vincent Cassel and his 22-year-old model wife Tina Kunakey, asking why so many of the men in the room seemed to be accompanied by beautiful and younger partners.
“Couldn’t you try a relationship with an ordinary woman?” she quipped. Cassel and Kunakey, who were both present, good-naturedly laughed off the gag.
Foresti, however, like Haenel seemed floored by the best director win for Polanski and did not return to the stage immediately after it was announced. She is reported to have said she was “nauseated” by the award.
In a surreal twist, Polanski’s best director prize was announced by filmmaker Claire Denis. The director was unwittingly at the heart of ex-César chief Terzian’s downfall after it came to light he had surreptitiously attempted to bar her from the guest list of the César Academy’s annual Soirée des Révélations, celebrating emerging talent.
She took to the stage with filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot for the best director announcement. Both seemed visibly fazed as Polanski’s name emerged out of the sealed envelope.
When a voiceover explained that the director was not present and that the César Academy would hand over the award privately, Bercot walked off stage, shouting: “Maybe”.
Actress Adèle Haenel was in attendance with the cast and crew of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Haenel was one of the first French stars to openly discuss her experiences of sexual abuse within the industry when she went public last November with allegations that director Christophe Ruggia molested her as a teenager. Ruggia denied Haenel’s allegations which are now subject to an official criminal investigation.
Haenel stormed out after Polanski’s best director win was announced, muttering “What a disgrace” (‘La Honte’) and shaking her arm. Sciamma followed swiftly behind with the rest of the cast.
Earlier on in the evening, actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin appeared tongue-tied as he opened the letter for best adapted screenplay to discover that Polanski had clinched the prize with UK writer Robert Harris for An Officer And A Spy and seemed to stop short of actually uttering the director’s name. The film also won the Cesar for best costume design.
Polanski himself did not attend the ceremony, announcing the day before he feared a “public lynching”. His cast, led by Jean Dujardin and Louis Garrel, also stayed away.
Not everyone at Friday night’s ceremony was upset by Polanski’s win.
Actress Fanny Ardant, who won the best supporting actress for her performance in La Belle Époque, declared her support for Polanski to journalists after the ceremony.
“When I love someone, I love them passionately. I love Roman Polanski a lot, so I am very happy for him. I will follow someone to the guillotine, I don’t like condemnation. Of course, not everyone agrees with this but long live freedom,” she said.
The big question as the dust settles on the troubled 45th César ceremony is whether it wil herald a watershed moment for the French film industry and its biggest awards.
A joint article by the film journalists of French newspaper Liberation entitled “Césars: Change, It’s not for now” suggested not.
The story suggested it was possible that Polanski had came second in terms of numbers of votes after Ladj Ly, who won best film for Les Misérables, because under the awards’s regulations, the winner of the best film cannot also win best director.
The article added, however, even if Polanski was second in number of votes, which will never be revealed, it still sent out a powerful message.
“An Officer And A Spy was already feted for best costume and best [adapted] screenplay, but the César given by default to Polanski was the least ambiguous possible, in that it is the only one that cannot be awarded to the crew, producer or the singular or autonomous intelligence of a film.”
In any other year, the awards would have been feted as a breakthrough year given the fact that Ly made history as the first black filmmaker to win the best film prize with Les Misérables. The film, which premiered at Cannes 2019, also won best emerging actor, editing and the public prize. But this achievement was lost in the other politics swirling around the event.
Highlighting the wins for Les Misérables and La Belle Époque as highpoints of the ceremony, Liberation said the overall impression left by the ceremony was that of ”headless chicken running in every direction”.
This year awards have been mired in controversy ever since Polanski was named as the frontrunner in the first round of voting at the end of January with 12 nominations for his historic drama about the 19th century Dreyfus Affair.
Female rights activists angrily decried the show of support for the director from the members of the Academy Of Cinema Arts and Techniques, or César Academy, which oversees the prizes.
They have long campaigned against any sort of celebration of Polanski in reaction to a 1977 statuary rape case against him involving a 13-year-old child, for which he has never stood trial. This year’s nominations came just three months after a fifth allegation of rape, which he denied.
Haenel told the The New York Times “distinguishing Polanski” would be like “spitting in the face of all victims” of sexual abuse.
“It means raping women isn’t that bad,” she said.