For many viewers, the French Academy Awards, or Les Césars, is pure torture. To understand Les Césars, first imagine the Oscars. Then remove the extravagant musical numbers performed by world-class entertainers. Forget the 40 second time limit on speeches enforced by the orchestra. Remove the commercials, which otherwise temper an excruciatingly long ceremony. (Friday’s ceremony clocked in at just over four hours by my count.)
Now insert a host or performer desperately attempting to win over the audience with an improvised musical sequence. Add presenters who struggle through a half-rehearsed skit that only elicits embarrassment and confusion. Insert extreme close-ups of actors, frantically chewing gum in fear of missing dinner at Fouquet’s, a posh Parisian restaurant where winners and nominees meet after the ceremony. Pan to yawning faces visibly stricken with boredom.
Finally, introduce a winner in one of two forms. One delivers an unpolished, grammatically challenged speech, complete with a long list of recommendations for the Cultural Minister. The other can’t even muster a speech, instead offering the classic line, “I don’t know what to say,” intimate details, or crying theatrics.
There you have Les Césars.
At least, that is what I have come to expect in my 15 years of French Academy Awards. However, this year Les Césars brought several surprises.
First, the vitality of French cinema was immediately striking in the award lineup. Competition was intense for Best Actor and Best Actress, with seven players in each category. The Best Actress category included Adèle Haenel, Karin Viard, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Kiberlain, Emilie Dequenne, and Marion Cotillard. Just a year after winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Suzanne,” Haenel took Best Actress for “Love at First Fight,” a film that also won Best First Feature Film and Best Male Breakthrough Performance (Kévin Azaïs).
Meanwhile, the Best Actor competition extended the battle between two depictions of Yves Saint Laurent. Gaspard Ulliel (in Bertrand Bonnello’s artsy Saint Laurent) and Pierre Niney (in Jalil Lespert’s mainstream biopic Yves Saint Laurent) were both expected favorites, but threatened to split the votes. Ultimately, Niney took home the award, though he recognized Ulliel in his acceptance speech. Though Bonnello’s Saint Laurent was more the critics’ darling, the film only received one award that night. Best Costume Design went to designer Anaïs Romand, who accomplished quite a feat in replicating Yves Saint Laurent’s 1970s creations from scratch.
The show also showered praise on emerging talent. While the Breakthrough Performance category has always placed some attention on fresh talent, the main awards of the evening were also packed with young faces. Four of the night’s winning actors represent the new wave: Niney, Haenel, Kristen Stewart (first American actress to receive a César, awarded for “Clouds of Sils Maria”) and Reda Kateb (“Hippocrate”). All are in their mid-twenties except for Reda Kateb in his late thirties. Similarly, 25-year-old Canadian director Xavier Dolan won in the Best Foreign Picture category for his film “Mommy,” up against outstanding competition: “12 Years A Slave,” “Ida,” “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Another interesting trend this year was a shift in preferences toward popular, mainstream films. French cinema achieved record attendance in 2014, claiming 44 percent of domestic box-office sales. The popular films that inflated sales also held their own at Les Césars. Dropping the usual disdain for box-office success, the Academy embraced popular comedies like “La Famille Bélier,” which was both a massive hit and nominated for Best Film, Best Actress, and Best Actor. The show also recognized popular dramas like “Yves Saint Laurent” and “Hippocrate,” while staying loyal to auteur cinema, including filmmakers like Olivier Assayas for “Clouds of Sils Maria,” François Ozon for “The New Girlfriend,” Abderrahmane Sissako for “Timbuktu,” and Céline Sciamma for “Girlhood.”
Finally, the show was tinted with a solemn tone. Sissako’s “Timbuktu” had already generated critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and during its French release. But with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and recent massacres by Boko Haram as a backdrop to the evening, the film served as a poignant reminder of dangerous extremism and brutality. The Academy awarded “Timbuktu” seven awards, including Best Picture, perhaps affirming commitment to cinema as a tool for enlightenment.
Many of the winners for “Timbuktu” gave beautiful speeches, praising important sentiments in troubling times, such as brotherhood, humanism, love, and peace. In a particularly heartfelt speech, Sissako urged calm, saying, “There is no clash of civilizations, only encounters between civilizations.”
Though Les Césars tried valiantly to balance the serious and irreverent, it remains a bizarre depiction of French politics and culture. The ceremony often appears pompous or seems to drag on excruciatingly, especially for guests like Honorary César winner Sean Penn and his girlfriend Charlize Theron, who were likely lost for much of the untranslated ceremony.
Watching Les Césars, especially abroad, reveals the paradoxes in French cinema. The industry rivals Hollywood in box-office attendance, yet it eschews commercial success for the sake of art. The industry is thriving, yet, as Production Design César winner Thierry Flamand notes, it seems unable to employ local film technicians, as more productions move abroad. French cinema is a national treasure that draws worldwide prestige, yet subjects loyal fans to excruciating award ceremonies. These contradictions make the French film industry both a pain and a joy, but eternally entertaining.