26 February 2011

Césars 2011

The French Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma awarded the César, its own version of the Oscar™ last night, and since many of the contenders have been subjects of essays and reviews here, I’m offering the results, along with some commentary, as a kind of update.

A couple of words of background first, however. Americans should know that the César is not named after any Roman emperor or general, or character in Astérix, but after the fellow who sculpted the award statue, at which I’d never gotten a good look before I prepared this blog post. Yikes, it’s ugly, isn’t it? Like something that’s come out of the trash compactor at the junkyard in Neuilly.* I prefer to dwell on the César’s other namesake, the character played by Raimu in Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy, a landmark in French moviemaking.

The biggest surprise this year, to this observer, was that Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and Gods) didn’t carry off more prizes. (It had the most nominations.) I haven’t seen the picture yet, but it’s the most prestigious release of the year here, much talked-about and favorably reviewed. Based on the real-life murder of Cistercian monks in Algeria, Des hommes et des dieux tackles questions about faith, engagement with others, and relations between Europeans and Middle Easterners; it was France’s official candidate for an Oscar™ this year, though it was bypassed. The César voters gave it the nod for Best Picture, but slighted its star, my former workout buddy Lambert Wilson (in what’s said to be the best performance of his career), and its director, Xavier Beauvois.

Des hommes: Lambert Wilson, with a co-star
(whom I don’t recognize)

The prize for best director went instead to Roman Polanski, for The Ghost Writer. That was a perfectly decent movie, and I found no fault in Polanski’s direction, but you’ve got to think that this award was motivated more by politics than by aesthetics. Polanski had stiff competition, not only from Beauvois but also from Olivier Assayas (for Carlos) and the eminent Bertrand Blier (for Le Bruit des glaçons) — but of course none of those guys endured house arrest in a châlet or possible extradition on charges of statutory rape. Much of France’s artistic community rallied around Polanski during the extradition case, and in a sense, they did so again last night.

On the whole, a much nicer way to spend an evening.

I’m not at all ambivalent about the winner of the Best Actor prize, Eric Elmosnino, who blew me away in Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg, vie héroïque. My God, how often does any Best Actor prize go to the actor who gave the best performance of the year? This is an eminently deserved recompense for a rich, nuanced portrayal of a man about whom every single person in France has deeply held preconceived ideas: the odds were stacked against Elmosnino in so many ways, but he really triumphed.

Elmosnino, with the late Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin

He was up against some formidable competition, not only Wilson but two other superstars, Gérard Depardieu and Romain Duris, whose dominance of French cinema is such that it earned them nominations for two lightweight comedies.** I thought Laetitia Casta’s uncanny incarnation of Brigitte Bardot represented a career breakthrough, and the Académie voters agreed with me, up to a point: she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress but didn’t win. Meanwhile, Sfar wasn’t nominated for his direction, and he lost the contest for Best Picture, but he did pick up the César for Best First Film. And I’m pleased to note that Sylvain Chomet’s L’Illusionniste won Best Animated Film.

The love for Polanski extended to the category of Best Adapted Screenplay, which prize Polanski shared with Robert Harris for The Ghost Writer. What surprised me here was that a rival, Bertrand Tavernier’s La Princesse de Montpensier didn’t win. I’d recently both seen the movie and read the short story on which it’s based, a work of fiction that reads very much like a treatment — though written in the 18th century. The author, Madame de La Fayette, distills most dialogue, skips character background, and collapses major plot points into single sentences, or fragments thereof; she honestly doesn’t seem to take an interest in her subject (and neither does the reader) until she’s nearly reached the end. Tavernier expanded and deepened this material, providing a brilliant lesson in how to write a screenplay. Since he and the picture were overlooked for most other prize categories, this would have been an easy way to pay respect to a fine director (who has, admittedly, made better films in previous years).

Montpensier: Lambert Wilson again, as the Count of Chabannes,
with Gaspard Ulliel as the notorious Duc de Guise.
As I’ve observed, Wilson is the hardest-working man in French show business,
though Ulliel is no slouch.

The French award the Césars immediately prior to the Oscar™ ceremony, presumably to increase the likelihood that other people will notice; they typically provide absolutely no indicator to the outcome of the American contests. However, you may want to note that The Social Network won Best Foreign Film; The King’s Speech wasn’t nominated. (Just released this week, it won’t be eligible for a César until the next time around.)

I wonder whether we can follow the awards ceremony on the Interweb.

The complete results are as follows, with a † to indicate films I haven’t seen:
Best Film: Des hommes et des dieux
Best Director: Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Best Actress: Sara Forestier, Le Nom des gens
Best Actor: Eric Elmosnino, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Alvaro, Le Bruit des glaçons
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Lonsdale, Des hommes et des dieux
Most Promising Actress: Leïla Bekhti, Tout ce qui brille
Most Promising Actor: Edgar Ramirez, Carlos
Best Photography: Caroline Champetier, Des hommes et des dieux
Best Editing: Hervé de Luz, The Ghost Writer
Best Original Screenplay: Baya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc, Le Nom des gens
Best Music: Alexandre Desplat, The Ghost Writer
Best Sound: Daniel Sobrino, Jean Goudier, Cyril Holtz, Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Set Design: Hugues Tissandier, Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec
Best Costumes: Caroline Vivaise, La Princesse de Montpensier
Best First Film: Gainsbourg, vie héroïque
Best Animated Film: L’Illusionniste
Best Documentary: Océans
Best Short Subject: Logorama
Best Foreign Film: The Social Network
Honorary César: Quentin Tarantino

*NOTE: The sheer ugliness of the César statue may have benefits for losers, who don’t have to display the damned thing in their living rooms, and who may be perfectly sincere, after all, when they say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”

**Duris was nominated for his role in L’Arnacoeur, a run-of-the-mill rom-com that could have come directly from Hollywood (except that everyone’s speaking French), and so Americanized that it pays lengthy homage to Dirty Dancing, that incomparable masterpiece of the Seventh Art.

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