Who needs the Oscars when you can have the Césars? The immediate answer is that the organizers of the Césars themselves seem to be the ones who can’t do without their American equivalent. Like the British Oscars – the BAFTAs – the Césars ceremony has in recent years been rescheduled to come just before the Oscars, presumably to appear more relevant, and blatantly copies the format and tone of the Oscar presentation (jokey comedian as host/canned repartee from the presenters before an award is announced, etc.). It seems regrettable that the European ceremonies are so in thrall to the big-money pulling power of Hollywood, but I guess that is inevitable.
Of the various winners, Isabelle Huppert’s César for best actress as a rape victim in Elle was perhaps the most predictable. I personally thought that Huppert’s role in Mia Hansen-Løve’s wonderful L’Avenir (Things to Come), a movie that inexplicably did not receive any nominations, was much more deserving of the prize, but it is a good thing that Huppert is receiving worldwide recognition for her continuing excellence. The fact that Elle also won the prize for best film was both less expected and controversial. As Heidi Ellison wrote in her original review of the film, the extreme sexual violence and inauthentic portrayal of the central female character made her think that only a man could have been responsible for making such a film.
Mercifully, Paul Verhoeven, the director of Elle, did not receive the gong for best director. Instead, Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan won it for his gripping and stylish Juste la Fin du Monde (It’s Only the End of the World), a movie that bizarrely did not even make it onto the best film category but was nominated for and did not win the best foreign film award (won, incidentally, by Ken Loach’s searing indictment of the British benefits system, I, Daniel Blake).
I was thrilled, however, that Gaspard Ulliel received the César for best actor for his movingly delicate portrayal of a dying writer returning to his family home in Juste la Fin du Monde. To my mind, Ulliel’s acting far outstripped the somewhat colorless performance by the much-admired actor Pierre Niney in François Ozon’s Frantz (which was itself nominated in the best film and director categories).
Of the other winners, the touching Ma Vie de Courgette picked up the awards for animated film and adapted screenplay, and Houna Benyamina’s urban thriller Divines won a number of gongs, including best first film and best supporting actress (Déborah Lukumuena). The documentary prize went to François Ruffin’s Merci Patron!, a Michael Moore-esque investigation into the corporate world’s disregard for the lives of its workers (Ruffin gave a rousing speech denouncing factory relocations when he accepted the award). The César for best screenplay (given to Sólveig Anspach and Jean-Luc Gaget for L’Effet Aquatique) can only be seen as a tribute to Anspach’s memory (she died of cancer shortly after making the film), as, for all its good-natured humor, the writing and characterizations in the movie were wafer-thin.
Just to show that the Césars were not averse to a little Hollywood glamour, George Clooney was on hand to receive an honorary award. For all its kowtowing to the Oscars, the French ceremony did show that French film is still alive and kicking. Paris Update will continue to follow with interest next year’s leading contenders.