France’s Cesar Awards Leads the Way for the Oscars

Since 2011, France’s Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma has steadfastly held its annual awards ceremony the Friday before the Academy Awards. And if launching the Césars two days before the Oscars holds a real, practical benefit — allowing those walking both red carpets time to linger over their last flutes of Champagne before boarding the 12-hour flight — it also resonates on a more figurative level.

Though both ceremonies have evolved alongside one another in recent years and have made similar changes, the César committees have consistently been just ahead of their American counterparts when introducing such shifts.

Take, for example, the overall number of nominees: In 2009, the Césars expanded its best picture field from five nominees to seven, predating the Oscars’ similar move by a year. The César chiefs were so pleased by this change that, in 2012, they opted to expand the categories of actor, actress and director to seven as well — a move the Academy’s board of governors still has yet to try.

Since 2016, a split between best picture and director trophies has been guaranteed: the French Academy added a rule stipulating as much to its charter. Meant to increase the number of winning titles, the rule dictates that should the same film receive the plurality of votes in both director and picture, the directing prize will then go the film with the second- most votes, a move that has rankled some in the local industry.

This year, there is a complete overlap between Cesar best picture and directing nominees, increasing the odds of such a mandated shift. Xavier Legrand’s “Custody” and Gilles Lellouche’s “Sink or Swim” lead the race with 10 nominations each, followed by Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” and Pierre Salvadori’s “The Trouble With You” at nine noms each.

The French Academy has had a smoother time introducing a prize honoring popular cinema. Called the César du Public and successfully introduced at last year’s ceremony, the non-competitive category spotlights the year’s top local earner — and in France, that will inevitable be one of the broad, crowd-pleaser comedies that dominate and ultimately help sustain the local box-office.

Though met with a handful of groans by the more uncompromising pockets of the local news media, the new prize received little of the chorus of jeers that greeted the Oscar’s subsequent, ill-fated attempt at such an honor, perhaps because many agreed on the need to address the significant divide between the Cannes darlings that tend to win best picture and the family comedies that keep the local industry competitive.

Though that divide was quite stark in 2018 — best picture “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” banked a solid $7 million, a good haul for a challenging Cannes prize winner, but far from the blockbuster numbers of César du Public winner “Raid: Special Unit,” which pulled in just over $33 million — this edition comes with an ironic twist. Both the presumptive public prize winner (the results won’t be announced until the ceremony itself, but the choice is made based on available box-office numbers) “The Magic Tuche” and the Cannes-approved “Sink or Swim” are respectively the No. 1 and No. 3 releases of the year.

Indeed, the starry ensemble piece “Sink or Swim” led the French box office through the end of last year, ultimately pulling in a $33 million haul commensurate with last year’s top film “Raid: Special Unit.” Which isn’t to call Lellouche’s synchronized swimming dramedy an absolute lock for all 10 categories for which it is nominated. For one thing, the film can’t win them all, and you can thank the director/picture bylaw and the film’s multiple acting nominations in the same categories for that.

What’s more, the film will receive stiff competition from Legrand’s searing domestic abuse drama “Custody,” which took home the Silver Lion at the 2017 Venice Film Festival and tied “Sink or Swim” in nominations. And just to make prognostication all the more difficult, France’s foreign film submission “Memoir of War,” Audiard’s recent Lumière winner “The Sisters Brothers,” and the heartwarming adoption drama “In Safe Hands” are also the mix — and have all have garnered strong support, with many vocal backers.

Without a single breakout Cannes title, this year is most notable for how truly unsettled it all is. Heading toward its Feb. 22 ceremony, the Césars have produced very few front-runners, and seem likely to proffer more than a few surprises. In an awards season landscape where the Césars’ choices can often echo through other, sister ceremonies, that could be a lesson well worth taking to heart.

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