On Friday night, Roman Polanski was awarded Best Director at France’s César Awards, sparking mass controversy and even an unprecedented walkout by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Adéle Haenel.
Hollywood awards shows have their fair share of drama. The Oscars consistently fail to nominate female Directors and talent of colour, but the French Academy have arguably taken this a step farther by consciously giving one of the top awards to Polanski, a convicted sex offender (of a minor) residing in Europe having fled the United States. One could of course argue that the César’s are no different to the American awards, as back in 2003, Polanski won the equivalent Oscar, prompting a now infamous standing ovation from multiple celebrities, including the likes of Martin Scorsese. But, in 2020, honouring him involves a completely different context.
Indeed, in the same week that Harvey Weinstein has been convicted of assault and sentenced to prison, to award Polanski is quite the slap in the face. The #MeToo movement has been raging on for over two years, the film industry claims to be different now to how it was in the day when abuses of power was common occurence, and the Academy changed their tune by expelling Polanski from their membership. Call it an empty gesture, but I’m fairly certain he’ll never be receiving an Oscar ever again.
Thus, the French César’s can’t help but look seriously backward in their decision to award the controversial director. But what makes it all the more strange is that the movie he one for: J’accuse (or An Officer and a Spy in English) wasn’t a particularly well-received film. In a year that saw one of the most acclaimed french pictures of all time (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), to award a lesser work from Polanski, however talented he may have been throughout his long career, seems out of the ordinary and quite frankly unnecessary. When he won for The Pianist, many of his critics could justify the move through the acknowledgement that the film was the best of the year, but no one is arguing that of J’accuse. Call me a cynic, but the decision seems a little… well… cynical. As with the Venice Film Festival last year (which awarded the film the Grand Jury Prize), there seems to be a theme of awards bodies railing against the more progressive politics emerging in the film world and giving the gongs to deliberately controversial choices. If you need any more convincing, Venice also gave the Golden Lion to Joker. Now that’s a trend!
Needless to say, the reaction to Polanski’s win was loud and disapproving, most notably through the aforementioned walkout from Haenel. The move is especially notable considering the actress’ history with sexual abuse. It was a double blow for the Portrait actress, who not only had to see Polanski win but saw her Director, Celine Sciamma, and her movie go home relatively empty handed. As she exited the room, she could be heard shouting “shame”. It was a showy and aggressive move, one that will no doubt galvanise many who also protest the award.
The episode highlights the conflict within the global film industry regarding its own sordid history. While on the one hand, there are rays of hope (Haenel’s actions, the conviction of Weinstein etc), it may take a while before it can truly be called reformed.