“[with a view to] … honor those involved in making cinema in 2019, to regain calm and to make the cinema festival [otherwise known as the ceremony “Les Césars”] a celebration, the board of directors of the Association for the Promotion of Cinema has made the decision to resign unanimously […]”
PARIS – So read part of the press release issued by the executive board of the César Awards last Thursday. The Césars, France’s version of our Oscars (the Césars were started in 1976; France had had other similar film awards before this) is in shambles. This year’s ceremony, planned for February 28th, will still take place but the organization standing behind it is in for a major reboot, with an Extraordinary Session scheduled the day after the awards show to work out the details. At the root of the problem is a lack of gender equality and of diversity amid the academy’s voters, so many echoes of similar accusations raised at our own Academy Awards.
The rest of the press release makes no mention of Alain Terzian, the organization’s president since 2003, even though he’s the embodiment of the criticism leveled at the organization. In a J’Accuse tribune in Le Monde, published a few days ago, some four hundred bold-faced names of the French film industry (Bertrand Tavernier, Omar Sy and Bérénice Béjo, among them) pointed to these issues and to Terzian as being part of the problem, denouncing what they view as his autocratic leadership and his lack of transparence in the decisionmaking process.
The organization in question, l’Académie des Césars, along with the Cannes Festival, holds a mirror to a film establishment that is nearly unparalelled in the world, excepting our own. The local film industry here is incredibly prolific, powerful and well-monneyed, and local cinephilic culture is without equal. How successful the Cannes Festival–which has also had to contend with change–and Les Césars, are at adjusting course will be of capital importance to the future of French cinema.
The Académie of the Césars is made up of a body of 4,500 academy voters, known as the electoral college, 35% of which is women. Up one level you’ll find forty-seven members, culled from the film industry, who have themselves won awards. They are led by a quorum of twenty-one industry heavies, from within the previously-mentioned 47, the proverbial “older white males” of the story, persons in their late seventies and early eighties. Along with Terzian the latter group has, in particular, been faulted for promoting cronyism and being out of step with the times, in the age of #metoo and the Harvey Weinstein trial. As was reported in the French press a few days before the en masse resignation, absenteeism also exist within these two upper levels, a large number of members regularly skipping out on assemblies and meetings. Terzian (see picture at the end of this article) remains the personification of the archaisms being decried.
The electoral college votes on 220 films across a variety of categories, from “best cinematography” to “best director,” etc. with Terzian as the guarantor, along with the Académie lawyers who tally the results, of the integrity of the voting process.
For the departing board, this resignation is a positive development. This exodus at the top tier opens the door for a deep cleaning, a reboot of institutional culture, with new, better policies for inclusiveness and affirmative action, under the watchful eye of the government.
Although rumblings about the Académie had been heard for some time, one event in particular may have helped trigger the mass resignation.
In early January, thirty-six runner-up actors for the “César du Meilleur Espoir,” an award handed to France’s promising actors (among them, for example, Amadou Mbow, who appeared in “Atlantique” by Mati Diop) gathered during a dinner at Le Petit Palais, here in Paris, a sort of Césars pre-game. According to tradition, these young actors are grandfathered in by a person of some notoriety or achievement, in the cinema, or otherwise, arts. Filmmaker Mati Diop had requested for the aforementioned Denis to grandfather Mbow, the actor she had cast in “Atlantique.” Virginie Despentes, a novelist and filmmaker, was approached by others, still. But the Académie des Césars interfered, not relaying the message, claiming that these people were not available, some people placing the blame directly at Terzian’s door (and he is, in all likelihood, to blame, his office being directly involved in blocking the communications). When Diop found out that her request had never been relayed to Claire Denis, she, naturally, asked the César committee for an explanation. The final outcome has been that some, among the thirty-six, have decided to pull out altogether.
This implosion, some time in the making, at les Césars occurs as Dominique Boutonnat (pictured above), the president of the CNC, France’s film lobby, funded nearly entirely by the French state, is entering the fray as mediator, intending to help the institution reform its policies and turn its governance culture around. Boutonnat, a President Emmanuel Macron loyalist, will seek to improve gender parity and democratize, and also expand, the voting body.
The question remains of who Terzian will be replaced by. This, more than likely, will not be known until after the ceremony. The resignation of the entire board won’t take effect until after the ceremony.
Throwing oil to the fire—Exhibit A: Roman Polanski, a legendary filmmaker who, at 86, is still making vital, relevant and grandiose cinema. His film, “An Officer and a Spy” (“J’accuse” in the original French), about officer Alfred Dreyfus’s 1894 wrongful conviction of treason, an event that’s a precursor to the ignoble antisemitism that would soon grip Europe, has received no fewer than twelve nominations, including for best film, at les Césars. The film is out in theaters now in France and is doing extremely well, though not just because it’s a very good Polanski vintage.
Again, in the grand and glorious age of #metoo Polanski’s film being featured front-and-center at this year’s award ceremony is causing quite a stir, and understandably so.
The Paris-born Polish-French filmmaker is a convicted rapist, wanted by Interpol. In 1977, when he was forty-three, Polanski plied a thirteen year-old at a party with alcohol and drugs and then went on to rape her. After serving a first sentence, Polanski escaped to Europe, where he’s been living ever since. Other women have come forth, since, with new accusations of rape and sexual improprieties.
All eyes on the prize. The Césars will take place on February 28th. Where all this is headed is anybody’s guess. If you have any insights on this, leave a comment below!
Featured image: actress Karin Viard holding a César award