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Fearing ‘public lynching’, Polanski pulls out of France's César awards

Demonstrators hold banners during a protest against French-Polish film director Roman Polanski outside the "Champo" cinema hall in Paris on November 12, 2019.
Demonstrators hold banners during a protest against French-Polish film director Roman Polanski outside the "Champo" cinema hall in Paris on November 12, 2019. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

Under-fire filmmaker Roman Polanski has announced he is skipping Friday’s awards ceremony for the Césars, France's equivalent of the Oscars, saying he will not submit himself to a "public lynching" over rape accusations he denies.

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Women's rights activists have vowed to disrupt the awards ceremony in Paris, furious that Polanski's latest film received the lion's share of nominations. They have sprayed anti-Polanski graffiti at the event venue and the headquarters of the French Film Academy, known as the Académie des Césars.

In a statement on Thursday, the Paris-based director said the annual gala event threatened to turn into a “public lynching”. Addressing the accusations of sexual assault levelled at him, he said, “Fantasies of unhealthy minds are now treated as proven facts."

The 87-year-old director is still wanted in the United States for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. More recently he has denied new allegations from photographer Valentine Monnier, who says he raped her at his Swiss chalet in 1975.

Polanski snubs French Oscars fearing 'public lynching'

“We know ahead of time how this evening will play out,” Polanski, who has dual French and Polish citizenship, wrote in his statement, adding that he wanted to protect his staff and family.

His decision to skip the event marks the latest, dramatic twist in a month-long saga that has rattled the film Académie des Césars. It comes two weeks after the academy’s entire board resigned amid a row over its "opaque" decision-making structure and the Polanski spat.

Box office hit

Both Polanski and the academy were at the centre of a storm of protest last month after the director's new film about the Dreyfus affair, "An Officer and a Spy", topped the list of nominations for the César awards.

>> The ‘French Oscars’, under fire, brace for a Polanski showdown

The film, which picked up two prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including best director, has been a box office hit at home, despite a wave of protests that saw some screenings cancelled after activists invaded or blockaded cinemas.

Its inclusion on the Césars shortlist prompted condemnation from women’s groups and some film critics, with France’s equality minister, Marlène Schiappa, suggesting French cinema was “yet to complete its awakening, its revolution”.

Alain Terzian, the academy’s longtime president, had strongly defended its right to honour Polanski’s film, arguing that it is not up to the institution to “adopt a moral stance” when handing out awards. He has since resigned, along with the rest of the board.

France ‘missed the #MeToo boat’

This is not the first time the Césars have faced controversy because of Polanski. In 2017, he was invited to preside over the awards ceremony, but stepped down after the proposal sparked outrage.

The latest Polanski row comes as French cinema has belatedly begun its own reckoning of sex abuse allegations in the film industry, spurred on by the likes of actress Adèle Haenel, who touched a nerve last autumn when she opened up about the sexual harassment she endured while shooting her first film, aged 12.

In an interview with the New York Times this week, Haenel said France had “completely missed the boat” on the #MeToo movement, failing to draw a line between “libertine behaviour” and “sexual abuse”.

"Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims," she said, in a warning to the Césars. "It means raping women isn't that bad."

‘Dysfunction’

Other controversies have conspired to cast a pall over this year’s awards ceremony.

Earlier this month, more than 200 actors, producers, directors and movie personalities penned an open letter demanding "profound reform" of the Académie des Césars, which they accused of being behind the times.

The signatories – including actors Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar as well as filmmakers Céline Sciamma and Gilles Lellouche – denounced "dysfunction" at the academy and the "opaqueness" of its accounts.

The male-dominated academy has been widely criticised for allegedly excluding director Claire Denis and writer Virginie Despentes, both considered feminist activists, from a ceremony announcing the contenders for this year's Césars.

On Wednesday, just 48 hours ahead of the awards ceremony, academy members appointed film producer Margaret Ménégoz as their interim president, pending a complete renewal of the board in April. She is only the second woman to lead the prestigious body, after film legend Jeanne Moreau in the 1980s.

CésarsSoWhite

As well as gender imbalance, the scarce visibility of minorities in French film is also dogging the industry on the eve of its annual gala event.

On Thursday, some of France’s top stars of colour published an open letter slamming the “invisibility” of minorities both in front of the camera and behind it. The signatories, who also included “La Haine” director Mathieu Kassovitz, accused the industry of confining black, Arab and Asian-origin performers to minor and often stereotypical parts.

"Actors of colour are given insignificant parts which would never justify them getting a Cesar," they wrote, calling for “urgent measures on inclusion”.

The letter pointed to the success of Ladj Ly's Oscar-nominated movie, "Les Misérables", as proof of the appeal of films that properly reflect the minority experience in France. The film, set in a troubled housing estate in a northern suburb of Paris, has 11 César nominations – just one fewer than Polanski's.

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