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Will 'The Artist' find glory at France's César awards?

Silent black-and-white French film “The Artist” dominated the Golden Globes, the BAFTAS and the Goyas, and is expected to do the same at the Oscars. But will it find glory at France’s own Césars? takes a closer look.


Silent black-and-white French movie “The Artist” has charmed the international film world into submission: it snagged Best Picture at the Golden Globes, Britain’s BAFTAs and Spain’s Goyas, and is expected to do the same at the Oscars on February 26th.

But France’s annual César awards, to take place February 24, could be a different story. The French certainly like the film; it was selected for competition last year at Cannes, received glowing reviews from many of France’s most finicky critics, and its director, Michel Hazanavicius, and star, Jean Dujardin, are well-regarded industry professionals.

Still, as Lisa Nesselson, a critic for British magazine Screen International and FRANCE 24, says: “The French have a love-hate relationship with flagrant success...Voters may think, ‘The Artist has entirely enough prizes already so let's spread the wealth around’”.

This year offers no shortage of alternatives. The nominees for the Best Film César are indeed a remarkably diverse – if not overwhelmingly impressive – bunch, ranging from experimental to conventionally crowd-pleasing and covering all ground in between.

Films on politics, police, and people coming together - or falling apart

On one end of the spectrum is box-office smash “Intouchables”, a glossy, feel-good buddy movie (based on a true story) about a wealthy, wheelchair-bound Parisian and the Senegalese caretaker he bonds with. French audiences, and a significant portion of the press, found the film’s broad, predictable, slightly condescending culture-clash humour (black meets white, poor meets posh, hip-hop meets classical) delightful. Perhaps they were swayed by the novelty of a mainstream French movie grappling, in an accessible, non-threatening way, with hot-button national issues like integration and racial tension.

Another nominee, Alain Cavalier’s “Pater”, is also a buddy movie of sorts, though temperamentally and aesthetically the polar opposite of “Intouchables”. A low-budget exercise in which the director and his friend, actor Vincent Lindon, film themselves pretending to be political big-wigs, “Pater” plays like a verbose inside joke about French patriarchal power. The film’s nomination is proof that the Césars are open to smaller, more eccentric works. It also suggests that in an age of globalisation, France’s cultural particularity is alive and well; after the movie’s screening at Cannes last May, French critics leapt to their feet to cheer, while the rest of us scratched our heads and wiped the sleep from our eyes.

In the midst of an election year, César voters seemed to have politics on the mind, with Pierre Schoeller’s “The Minister” (“L’Exercice de L’Etat”) also scoring a best film nod. A compellingly idiosyncratic, dark-hued portrait of one very stressed-out French transport minister, the movie’s impact is blunted by a few too many plot strands. But it has some passionate supporters – the film won the main French critics’ group prize – and could sneak in to steal “The Artist”’s thunder.

The other major threat could be Maiwenn’s “Poliss” (“Polisse”), a vibrant, though wildly uneven ensemble piece about a Parisian child protection unit. Voters were apparently unbothered by the director’s narcissistic need to insert the character she plays – as well as a few gratuitous shots of her shiny mane of perfectly tangled hair – into a distracting romantic subplot that nearly derails the film; “Poliss” scooped up a whopping 13 nominations, more than any other movie.

Navel-gazing tendencies are also on display in best picture nominee “Declaration of War” (“La guerre est declarée”), Valerie Donzelli’s much buzzed-about autobiographical film about the ordeal she and co-star Jérémie Elkaim endured during their infant son’s battle with brain cancer. The first half is a riveting, refreshingly brisk take on the dreaded “disease movie” genre, worthy of the swoons the film earned from French critics and audiences. Too bad the second half, in which the couple’s relationship abruptly unravels, is so stylistically mannered and dramatically unconvincing.

If there’s a wild card in the crop of movies vying for the big prize this year, it is Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Havre”. Not only is the director a foreigner, but the film – a lovely, if slight, fantasy about how immigration would be handled in a more humane Europe – translates Kaurismaki’s trademark deadpan tone and deliberate rhythms into French and transplants them onto French soil.

More diversity in acting categories

Whether any of these films can defeat “The Artist”, an appealing and spirited experiment that never quite springs to full emotional life, remains to be seen. Even if it doesn’t take home the most coveted statuette, the movie could find glory elsewhere: its leads, Jean Dujardin and Beatrice Bejo, are up for Best Actor and Actress for their performances as a silent cinema icon and his rising “talkie” star love interest.

The acting categories this year are also notable for their inclusion of more minority performers than is customary for a French film industry that often looks lily-white. Leila Bekhti is up for Best Actress for “The Source” (“La Source des femmes”); Omar Sy and Samy Bouajila will face off in the Best Actor field for “Intouchables” and “Omar Killed Me” (“Omar m’a tuer”), respectively; rapper Joeystarr is considered a Best Supporting Actor frontrunner for “Poliss”; and Naidra Ayadi, also from “Poliss”, could see her career boosted by a Most Promising Actress win.


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