Perhaps there’s hope for this evening’s Oscar ceremony.
On Saturday, I watched (most of) the French Academy of Film Arts and Sciences’ 32nd César du cinéma ceremony held last night (late morning/early afternoon Los Angeles time) at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
The event, hosted by actress Valérie Lemercier and dedicated to recently deceased French film icon Philippe Noiret, was apparently directed by former U.S. vice president Al Gore, who made sure that winners and presenters attended a class or two at the Greer Garson School of Speech Making. (For those who don’t know: At the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony, best actress winner Garson supposedly gave the most long-winded acceptance speech in Oscar history.)
In other words, apart from a few spontaneous moments and despite Lemercier’s professionalism, the César ceremony felt embarrassingly stiff (hence the Al Gore directorial touch). Even naturalistic performers like Juliette Binoche and Claude Brasseur looked stilted despite (or perhaps because of) much too obvious attempts to act casually onstage.
Additionally, the evening was filled with speeches – introductions, homages, thank-yous, calls for political action – that went on for considerably longer than necessary. Sabine Azéma, for instance, became so enamored of her overwrought intro to the best actor award – “there’s the light of the projector; there’s the light of the sun …”; in addition to reciting a line from Pierre Corneille’s poem Le Cid – that she forgot to give out the names of the nominees. (The same almost happened to best film presenter Nathalie Baye.)
But why then do I say there’s hope for the Oscars?
First, because there was no clear-cut sweep this year – you never knew who was going to win the next award. Second, because unexpected winners made frequent trips to the stage to thank producers, directors, relatives, neighbors, pets, et al.
Instead of Rachid Bouchareb’s socially conscious (and disappointingly pedestrian) war drama Indigènes / Days of Glory – The Film That Changed the Laws of France and a sizable box office hit to boot (3.2 million admissions) – or Guillaume Canet’s well-respected and popular thriller Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One (2.8 million admissions), the best French film winner was Pascale Ferran’s new take on D. H. Lawrence’s scandalous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the story of a married woman who has a hot-and-heavy affair with the hunky gamekeeper of her landowner husband, who happens to be a war invalid.
Renamed Lady Chatterley, the 168-minute period drama did only moderate business on French screens (200,000 admissions) but was quite well liked by the French Academy, winning a total of five Césars. In addition to the best film prize, Lady Chatterley received top honors for adapted screenplay (Ferran, Roger Bohbot, and Pierre Trividic), cinematography (Julien Hirsch), costume design (Marie-Claude Altot), and, surprisingly, actress (stage-trained Marina Hands, who beat favorite Cécile De France for both Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne and Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer).
Lady Chatterley is Pascale Ferran’s third feature film in 14 years. Her first, Petits arrangements avec les morts / Coming to Terms with the Dead, won the Caméra d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. With her Lady Chatterley victory, Ferran has become only the fourth woman to direct a best film César winner. (For the record: The other three are Coline Serreau for 3 hommes et un couffin / Three Men and a Cradle , Tonie Marshall for Vénus beauté (institut) / Venus Beauty Institute , and Agnès Jaoui for Le Goût des autres / The Taste of Others .)
After accepting the adapted screenplay award, Ferran read an overlong – even if beautifully written – document pleading for France’s low-paid show business workers, who have been fighting against reforms to their pension system in addition to other measures proposed by the business-oriented organization MEDEF. The workers have previously caused interruptions to the César ceremony, but this year they reportedly vowed to let the event proceed as long as their cause was heard.
Ferran, who wrote the piece herself, pointed out the growing gap between the financing of “rich” (commercial) films and “poor” (art) films as the result of a system “that betrays the heritage of the greatest French filmmakers.” After six minutes, she wrapped things up with a call to arms, reminding audience members and TV viewers that “before the presidential elections there remain 55 days to dare mention the word ‘culture.’” Long and enthusiastic applause followed. Shortly thereafter, Juliette Binoche appeared onstage thanking Ferran for her “special” speech, and later in the evening, 79-year-old, raspy-voiced screen legend Jeanne Moreau remarked on the director’s “magnificent” eloquence.
The evening’s other major winner was Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One. The thriller, based on a novel by Harlan Coben, won a total of four awards: Best director for 33-year-old actor-turned-filmmaker Guillaume Canet (right), who became the youngest César recipient in the best director category (and who grabbed the lectern as if he were holding on to dear life); best actor François Cluzet, for his performance as a doctor who discovers that his long-dead wife may not be all that dead after all; best music for Mathieu Chedid (a.k.a. “M”), who claimed he “improvised [the film’s score] on the violin during one afternoon”; and best editing for Hervé de Luze, who was competing against himself for his work on Alain Resnais’ Coeurs / Private Fears in Public Places.
I haven’t seen Ne le dis à personne, but I was disappointed that 84-year-old veteran Resnais didn’t get the best director award for his haunting Coeurs – which in fact failed to win a single César out of its 8 nominations. No one can accuse French Academy voters of being sentimental.
(In all fairness, the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year in Marienbad has already won two best director Césars – for Providence  and for Smoking/No Smoking . Both films also received the César for best film. Besides, Resnais’ On connaît la chanson / Same Old Song was voted best film of 1997, though that year the best director award went to Luc Besson for The Fifth Element.)
In spite of its nine nods, Days of Glory was another sentimental favorite that failed to receive much love from French Academy members. The war drama won only one César – for best original screenplay (Rachid Bouchareb and Olivier Lorelle). Days of Glory, about North African soldiers who fought for France during World War II, is up for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In addition, the war drama won an ensemble best actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Karl Zéro and Michel Royer’s Dans la peau de Jacques Chirac / Inside the Skin of Jacques Chirac, a mockumentary about the opportunistic French president and his four-decade political life, became the first documentary feature to win a César in the newly created category.
Best supporting actor Kad Merad (for Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine) found himself incapable of getting off the stage. Each time it looked like his barrage of thank-yous and reminiscences was coming to an end, he’d take a breath and go on spitting out another endless stream of names.
Another odd César moment was the announcement of the best supporting actress award, with the evening’s maîtresse de cérémonie herself, Valérie Lemercier, as one of the five nominees. Lemercier saved herself from a potentially embarrassing situation by winning the trophy for her hilarious turn as a manic-depressive actress in Avenue Montaigne. She claimed she had a good joke in store in case the award had gone to somebody else, and then went on to her thank-yous – while this César watcher wondered if her role as César hostess had somehow influenced the vote.
(Apparently not. I later found out that Lemercier also acted as hostess last year but lost the best actress award to Nathalie Baye, while best actor nominee Gad Elmaleh hosted the ceremony in 2004 only to see the César go to Omar Sharif.)
Lemercier’s 2007 victory was her second. She had previously won in the supporting actress category for the 1993 comedy Les Visiteurs / The Visitors. For the record: This year’s best supporting actress losers were Christine Citti, veterans Bernadette Lafont and Mylène Demongeot, and Lemercier’s fellow Avenue Montaigne player (and veteran singer) Dani.
Jude Law’s Honorary César was another oddity, though through no fault of the actor. Had they so wished, the French Academy’s board of governors could surely have found someone with a more solid – and considerably more extensive – body of work. Olivia de Havilland, for one, has been living in Paris for decades and to this day remains César-less.
Law, however, behaved like a gentleman, making his acceptance speech – while reading from a piece of paper – in French. (At the 1992 ceremony, Sylvester Stallone was much less courteous, accepting his César d’Honneur without even bothering to say “thank you” in the language of his hosts. But then again, that’s what you get when you give an honorary award to someone whose body of work consisted of a series of dumb boxers and even dumber warriors.)
In sharp contrast to most of the other women present – and to her screen self – Jobert showed up in a smart dark suit that covered most of her body. I usually don’t pay attention to that sort of stuff, but she did look different. (And so did fellow suit wearer Marie-France Pisier.) Now, in her film clips the pert, freckle-faced Jobert appeared quite underdressed, and in a couple of them she was garbed just as nature made her. In sum, the sort of homage you won’t see at the Oscars, lest the easily hot-and-bothered FCC censors suffer an apoplectic fit.
A charming Hilary Swank, after apologizing for being unable to speak French, read in English (with simultaneous French translation) the list of nominees in the best foreign film category. The winner was Little Miss Sunshine. A representative of the film’s French distributor accepted the award for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. During his speech, the gentleman provoked (unintended) gales of laughter by nervously caressing his long, thick statuette in a manner that was more than a little suggestive. He has my vote for a future César d’Honneur for providing what is surely one of the greatest comedic moments in César history.
By the way, the makers of Babel, The Queen, Volver, and Brokeback Mountain were the ones denied the chance to stroke phallic-shaped statuettes. Someone, somewhere will now surely accuse the French Academy of being anti-gay. I mean, not only did Brokeback Mountain – once again – lose to a thoroughly mediocre effort, but openly gay director Pedro Almodóvar, whose comedy-drama Volver is one of the two or three best films of 2006, also went home empty-handed.
Almodóvar, at least, did make a welcome appearance onstage to introduce the best actress winner and to thank the French public for their warm reception to Volver. As a plus, the director’s Spanish-lilted French was a delight.
But in terms of sheer emotional pull, nothing could beat the minute-long standing ovation given to film legend Michèle Morgan (right), still looking great at almost 87 (born on Feb. 29, 1920). Morgan was present – at least in part – to witness the homage to director Gérard Oury, who died last year. Oury, one of the most popular filmmakers in France and the winner of an Honorary César in 1993, was the actress’ companion for half a century. Morgan never made it to the stage, but she did take a bow, along with Oury’s visibly moved daughter, Danièle Thompson, and grandson, Christopher Thompson, both of whom were nominated in the best original screenplay category for the charming Avenue Montaigne.
Following the announcement of Lady Chatterley as the best French film of the year, Pascale Ferran explained that at the end of the shoot the company was so broke there was no money for a wrap-up party. She then invited the film’s technicians to “come join us onstage because the party is now.”
Shortly thereafter, the evening’s winners were herded onto the stage. Jude Law told the crowd (in French) that going to the movies is sexy, and the homage to le cinéma français was incongruously over to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood.” Ah, bon? Well, after three-plus hours of speeches, things do get more than a little confusing.
According to a Reuters report, 2006 was a solid year for French cinema, with approximately 85 million tickets sold for locally made films, the highest figure in 22 years. Additionally, profitability was at its best in about a decade.
Prix César winners & nominations
The 2007 César du Cinéma winners were announced at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, on Feb. 24. Valérie Lemercier was the hostess.
Best French Film
Indigènes / Days of Glory Rachid Bouchareb
Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine Philippe Lioret
* Lady Chatterley Pascale Ferran
Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One Guillaume Canet
Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer Xavier Giannoli
Best Foreign Film
Babel Alejandro González Iñárritu
* Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton, Valérie Faris
Brokeback Mountain Ang Lee
The Queen Stephen Frears
Volver Pedro Almodóvar
Best First Film
13 Tzameti Gela Babluani
Les Fragments d’Antonin Gabriel Le Bomin
* Je vous trouve très beau / You Look So Handsome Isabelle Mergault
Mauvaise foi Roschdy Zem
Pardonnez-moi / Forgive Me Maïwenn
Rachid Bouchareb Indigènes / Days of Glory
* Guillaume Canet Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Pascale Ferran Lady Chatterley
Philippe Lioret Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine
Alain Resnais Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Michel Blanc Je vous trouve très beau / You Look So Handsome
Alain Chabat Prête-moi ta main / I Do
* François Cluzet Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Gérard Depardieu Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
Jean Dujardin OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Cécile de France Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne
Cécile de France Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
Catherine Frot La tourneuse de pages / The Page Turner
Charlotte Gainsbourg Prête-moi ta main / I Do
* Marina Hands Lady Chatterley
Best Supporting Actor
Dany Boon La doublure
François Cluzet Quatre étoiles / Four Stars
André Dussollier Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Guy Marchand Dans Paris / In Paris
* Kad Merad Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine
Best Supporting Actress
Christine Citti Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
Dani Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne
Mylène Demongeot La Californie / French California
Bernadette Lafont Prête-moi ta main / I Do
* Valérie Lemercier Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne
Best Male Newcomer
Georges Babluani 13 Tzameti
Rasha Bukvic La Californie / French California
Arié Elmaleh L’école pour tous
Vincent Rottiers Le Passager
James Thierrée Désaccord parfait / Perfect Disagreement
* Malik Zidi Les Amitiés maléfiques / Malevolent Friendships
Best Female Newcomer
Déborah François La Tourneuse de pages / The Page Turner
Marina Hands Lady Chatterley
* Mélanie Laurent Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine
Aïssa Maïga Bamako
Maïwenn Pardonnez-moi / Forgive Me
Best Original Screenplay
Xavier Giannoli Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
* Olivier Lorelle, Rachid Bouchareb Indigènes / Days of Glory
Isabelle Mergault Je vous trouve très beau / You Look So Handsome
Danièle Thompson, Christopher Thompson Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne
Laurent Tuel, Christophe Turpin Jean-Philippe
Best Adapted Screenplay
Guillaume Canet, Philippe Lefèbvre Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
* Pascale Ferran, Roger Bohbot, Pierre Trividic Lady Chatterley
Jean-François Halin, Michel Hazanavicius OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Philippe Lioret, Olivier Adam Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine
Jean-Michel Ribes Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Patrick Blossier Indigènes / Days of Glory
Éric Gautier Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
* Julien Hirsch Lady Chatterley
Christophe Offenstein Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Guillaume Schiffman OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Armand Amar Indigènes / Days of Glory
* Mathieu Chedid Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Jérôme Lemonnier La Tourneuse de pages / The Page Turner
Mark Snow Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Gabriel Yared Azur et Asmar
Martine Giordano Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
Yannick Kergoat Indigènes / Days of Glory
Sylvie Landra Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne
Hervé de Luze Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
* Hervé de Luze Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Best Production Design
Dominique Douret Indigènes / Days of Glory
* Maamar Ech Cheikh OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Jean-Luc Raoul Les Brigades du tigre / The Tiger Brigades
François-Renaud Labarthe Lady Chatterley
Jacques Saulnier Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Best Costume Design
* Marie-Claude Altot Lady Chatterley
Jackie Budin Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Charlotte David OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Pierre-Jean Larroque Les Brigades du tigre / The Tiger Brigades
Michèle Richer Indigènes / Days of Glory
Jean-Marie Blondel, Thomas Desjonquères, Gérard Lamps Cœurs / Private Fears in Public Places
Jean-Jacques Ferran, Nicolas Moreau, Jean-Pierre Laforce Lady Chatterley
Pierre Gamet, Jean Goudier, Gérard Lamps Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One
Olivier Hespel, Olivier Walczak, Franck Rubio
Thomas Gauder Indigènes / Days of Glory
* François Musy, Gabriel Hafner Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer
* Dans la peau de Jacques Chirac / Inside the Skin of Jacques Chirac Karl Zéro, Michel Royer
La fille du juge / The Judge’s Daughter William Karel
Ici Najac, à vous la Terre Jean-Henri Meunier
Là-bas / Over There Chantal Akerman
Zidane, un portrait du XXIe siècle Philippe Parreno, Douglas Gordon
Bonbon au poivre Marc Fitoussi
* Fais de beaux rêves / Have Nice Dreams Marilyne Canto
La Leçon de guitare / The Violin Lesson Martin Rit
Le Mammouth Pobalski Jacques Mitsch
Les Volets Lyèce Boukhitine
Alain Resnais returns to Prix César: Lambert Wilson and Laura Morante in Private Fears in Public Places.
The best thing about the 2007 César nominations is the fact that Alain Resnais’ beautiful, haunting, magical Coeurs / Private Fears in Public Places received a total of 8 nominations, including a Best Director nod for Resnais himself, and a best screenplay nod for Jean-Michel Ribes’ adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play.
The worst thing about the 2007 César nominations is the fact that Alain Resnais’ beautiful, haunting, magical Coeurs / Private Fears in Public Places failed to receive a nomination in the best film category. Adding insult to injury, none of the film’s generally outstanding performers – particularly Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi, Isabelle Carré, and André Dussollier – were nominated in any of the acting categories. (Dussollier, however, did land a best supporting actor nod, but for his role in Ne le dis à personne / Tell No One.)
The French Academy’s five best film nominees are:
Indigènes / Days of Glory - Rachid Bouchareb’s socially significant but dramatically simplistic film about the contributions of North Africans to the Allied cause during World War II. Days of Glory helped to change an unbelievably nasty French law denying equal benefits to Algerian war veterans, but in terms of storytelling it crams in just about every possible war film cliché during its two-hour running time. (Bouchareb did an infinitely more pointed – and more cinematically effective – social critique in his 1991 satirical drama Cheb.)
Nonetheless, Days of Glory – a huge box office success in France – is the favorite in the best film race. It has also been nominated for a best foreign-language film Academy Award (2007), and its male principals won an ensemble best actor prize at the 2006 Cannes festival. Surprisingly, none of its actors were singled out for a César nomination.
Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas / Don’t Worry, I’m Fine - Philippe Lioret’s social drama about a young woman (best female newcomer nominee Mélanie Laurent) looking for her twin brother in a series of soulless, identity-less Truman Show-like Parisian suburbs. Lioret and Olivier Adam were nominated for their adaptation of Adam’s novel.
Lady Chatterley - Pascale Ferran’s adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s scandalous novel, with best actress and best female newcomer nominee Marina Hands as the adulterous aristocrat of the title role, and Jean-Louis Coulloc’h as the gamekeeper she loves (or lusts after) in an England where everybody speaks French.
Tell No One - Taken from Harlan Coben’s suspense novel, Guillaume Canet’s thriller follows a nice pediatrician (best actor nominee François Cluzet) who may not be such a nice guy after all – in fact, he may be his wife’s murderer. The all-star cast includes Nathalie Baye, Kristin Scott Thomas, Marie-Josée Croze, Jean Rochefort, and best supporting actor nominee André Dussollier. (Cluzet was also nominated in the best supporting actor category for his performance in Quatre étoiles / Four Stars.)
Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer - Writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s tale of a love affair between a small-time singer (best actor nominee Gérard Depardieu) and a woman (best actress nominee Cécile De France) old enough to be his granddaughter – or almost.
The only one of the five best film nominees that failed to receive a matching best director nod was The Singer. Alain Resnais took Xavier Giannoli’s slot.
Volver, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, and Brokeback Mountain are the best foreign film nominees.
Among the other César nominees are Jean Dujardin as a sort of French James Bond in the popular spy comedy-action-thriller OSS 117 - Le Caire nid d’espions / OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, best film winner at last year’s Seattle Film Festival; best actress nominee Catherine Frot, as a pianist in La Tourneuse de pages / The Page Turner; and veterans Mylène Demongeot and Bernadette Lafont, both nominated in the best supporting actress category, the former for La Californie / French California (that’s the Mediterranean coast) and the latter for Prête-moi ta main / I Do.
Danièle Thompson’s crowd-pleasing (and quite charming) ensemble piece Fauteuils d’orchestre / Avenue Montaigne surprisingly failed to nab a best picture nod (and a best foreign language film Academy Award nod), though it did receive three acting mentions: best actress nominee Cécile De France, who is competing against herself in Quand j’étais chanteur; and in the best supporting actress category, Dani, in a touching performance as a theater concierge about to retire, and Valérie Lemercier, hilarious as the stage and TV star who convinces exasperated Sydney Pollack to exclaim “Fuck Sartre!”
Additionally, Danièle Thompson and her son, actor Christopher Thompson (who also has a role in the film), were nominated for their original screenplay.
Another veteran, Michel Blanc, received a best actor nomination for his role as a widowed French farmer who tries to find himself a hardworking Romanian wife in director-writer Isabelle Mergault’s Je vous trouve très beau / You Look So Handsome. Mergault was nominated for her original screenplay.
And speaking of veterans, Gérard Depardieu’s nomination for Quand j’étais chanteur is his 15th – and his first in 12 years. The actor has won two Césars, for Le Dernier métro / The Last Metro (1980) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990).
The Prix César 2007 winners will be announced on Feb. 24, one day before Hollywood’s Academy Awards.
Surprisingly, the Association of German Film Critics did not pick Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s internationally acclaimed Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others as the best German film of 2006. Instead, their choice was Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem, based on the real-life story of a woman who believed herself possessed by the devil. (That same story also inspired the undemonic The Exorcism of Emily Rose.) Henckel von Donnersmarck had to content himself with winning the best first film prize.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, The Lives of Others has had the biggest opening for a German-language film ever in the United States. (I’m assuming that those figures – as usual – haven’t been adjusted for inflation. I mean, what about Das Boot?) Having been greeted with overwhelmingly positive notices in Germany and abroad, the – in my invariably humble opinion, overlong and unconvincing – spy melodrama is up for a best foreign-language film Academy Award.
As the bedeviled Requiem lead, Sandra Hüller was voted best actress (she also won the Silver Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival), while Ulrich Mühe, as the conflicted spy in The Lives of Others, was chosen best actor.
Wolfgang Kohlhaase was the best screenwriter for Sommer vorm Balkon / Summer in Berlin, directed by Andreas Dresen. The film revolves around the travails of two women (Inka Friedrich, Nadja Uhl) spending the summer in Berlin.