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Sun. May 31st, 2020

What Happened at the César Awards Was a Setup For Silence

They think they are defending the freedom of expression, in reality they are defending their monopoly of speech. What they did last night, it’s us whom they are sending back into silence, obligating us to silence ourselves.

Adèle Haenel

The 2020 César Awards marked a fiery end to awards season, and not just with the burning torches angrily waved outside the ceremony. After Roman Polanski, a child rapist who is barred from the United States after fleeing to avoid sentencing, won best director, actress Adèle Haenel publicly walked out of the ceremony, closely followed by the rest of the women behind the internationally acclaimed but mostly snubbed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (it won a single award for Claire Mathon’s cinematography), including her director and former partner Céline Sciamma. The women walked out in protest of the repeated silencing of sexual abuse survivors within the French film industry, and were followed by a few others showing solidarity.

Adèle Haenel is one of France’s most lauded young actresses, having been nominated for seven Césars by the age of thirty, and winning two. In November of 2019, she went public about having been sexually abused by director Christophe Ruggia from the ages of twelve to fifteen on the set of her first film, and later decided to press charges in January. She is the first actress to come forward in France, and inspired another one of Roman Polanski’s victims to come forward soon after. She has called for discussions to accompany screenings of J’Accuse about the issues with separating art from artist, and recently discussed France’s problem with #MeToo, especially in relation to Roman Polanski, with The New York Times. Adèle was nominated this year for her lead role in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (as was her co-star Noémie Merlant), a sweeping lesbian romance. Her performance received mass acclaim, even though French critics derided the film as ‘sexless’, an opinion that was not shared by the rest of the world. After leaving the ceremony, she talked to Mediapart, saying “They think they are defending the freedom of expression, in reality they are defending their monopoly of speech. What they did last night, it’s us whom they are sending back into silence, obligating us to silence ourselves”.

The truth is, she was never meant to win for the film, no matter how widely her win was wanted. When introducing the award for best actress, actor Mathieu Kassovitz describes it as an award for the “relation between actor and actress,” already ruling out the possibility of the story of two women falling in love leading to wins for either Adèle Haenel or co-star Noémie Merlant. During their brief appearance on the red carpet, Haenel describes the awards as exciting to see what statement will be made, while Sciamma says the situation is just tense. It appears she correctly suspected the coming storm. The deciders fear the film’s lens on a woman’s role; men do not have speaking roles in the film, and it is a direct disposal of the usually imbalanced nature of the artist/muse relationship. This isn’t the first instance Adèle Haenel has used the Césars as a platform, in 2014 she came out as a lesbian onstage, and announced her relationship with then-partner Céline Sciamma.

This is not an actress throwing a tantrum and leaving because she didn’t win an award. This is about an actress who is the first prominent figure to break the silence about her own experiences with sexual abuse as a child by a director just months before choosing not to stand for an admitted pedophile being recognised for his work. Sciamma’s film is at the receiving end of a protest by the industry against ‘wokeness’, it seems. After winning the best screenplay award at Cannes, which is correlated closely within the French industry, Sciamma’s script lost original screenplay, and J’Accuse won adapted screenplay. It’s also worth noting that the winner in original screenplay used his platform to speak out in defense of Roman Polanski, as did many in attendance, including Fanny Ardant and Eva Green.

The problem is framing Adèle Haenel and Roman Polanski sharing an awards room as a fight. It’s not equal footing, welcoming him into the room is a statement in itself. By recognising Roman Polanski’s art he is currently making, it is a signal that one believes that he should be allowed to make it. No matter the content of the films themselves, giving his work a platform is an endorsement that he should not be in prison for his crimes. French media has painted it as a fight between Polanski and the ‘angry feminist’ Adèle Haenel, placing their faces opposed on a cover as if they are in the same place. This isn’t the first time she’s been there on a night when he’s been handed a best director statue; his 2014 win for Venus in Furs was the night she won best supporting actress for Suzanne. The difference then was that the attention wasn’t focused on her, as there was no spectacle for the media to create before she spoke out.

It’s as she says when walking past a cameraman on the way out of the building – “bravo pedophilia, bravo!” A vast majority of the crowd still claps and smiles at the best director win, and all but ten (at initial report) remain in their seats. With all the protests, the statements from the board, and the lack of attendees from J’Accuse, they still manage to win, because pedophilia is no crime to the industry. They take the ‘death of the artist’ trope broadly, even awarding the supposedly dead artist. France believes awarding a person has no correlation with awarding their actions, or maybe they even condone these actions, and that is what is so dangerous, and it is what makes France a safe haven for famous predators. “They wanted to separate the man from the artist, today they separate artists from the world”, Adèle Haenel comments on the matter. This separation of artists from the world that she refers to is the prioritization of these rapists with lengthy careers over anyone who dares to make a stir against letting abuse go unchecked. France is behind on MeToo, it is a place where speaking up is almost guaranteed to be career-damaging.

It all feels tightly constructed for silence. Not only was Adèle Haenel’s shout of ‘shame on you!’ as she walked out of the ceremony muted, but the time the women Portrait of a Lady on Fire were given to speak is far under proportioned for the film’s presence within the nominations (the film received nine across major categories, and was predicted as one of the frontrunners of the night). During a broadcast over five hours long, the women behind the film were given approximately three minutes to speak on the red carpet, and aside from Claire Mathon’s brief winner’s speech for best cinematography, were only mentioned in passing as a bare minimum. Speeches are cut off with loud music when they run over the allotted time, and every speech that mentioned the pedophilia issue at hand was cut off early.

Even the best cinematography win for Claire Mathon is calculated. Not only would it be suspicious for the women who shot both Atlantics and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, two films that received more international acclaim for their photography than anything else put out by France throughout the year, to not win the award, but it sends a clear statement for it to be the only win. By having Portrait of a Lady on Fire only win an award for its visuals, it is to say that these women are to be seen and not heard. They can make a pretty picture, but they are just a subject, and not given a voice. Because Mathon is awarded, it is not a complete shutout for the team, so that criticism can be shot down by the Césars board.

The cameras at the ceremony are all too convenient. At every mention of Roman Polanski onstage, we are shown Adèle Haenel’s reaction in the audience. It’s funny the first time, when we see her laugh at a joke onstage about the hypocrisy surrounding J’Accuse.  It’s less funny when we see her faces of disgust, then disinterest, then fear when Polanski’s film is repeatedly awarded, and the presenters revel in how nice the statue is, and that someone will deliver it to its owner soon enough. The camera is perfectly in place for when Haenel stands up to leave, moving a little too fast to follow the women leaving… almost as if they expected it. Her reactions are made into popcorn entertainment; her presence is heavily promoted to gain viewership, yet she doesn’t get to speak on broadcast. It’s a blatant attention grab on the broadcast’s part, to advertise the presence of an abuse survivor who’s reactions to a sensitive situation are only shown to exploit her presence for tension and novelty.

Without showing his face, Polanski is given more of a voice than the women in the room who have spoken out against him. So why nominate them at all? The nominations get them in the room, and by repeatedly showing his power over them, they slowly hone in on their point that silence is the way to exist in the film industry. “The whole night was centered around the idea that we couldn’t say anything. How are we going to laugh now if we can’t laugh about the oppressed? But what if we laugh about ourselves? if we laughed about the dominant ones?” Haenel says. The Portrait of a Lady on Fire team, as well as everyone there for François Ozon’s By the Grace of God, a film which confronts sexual abuse of young boys within the Catholic church, are allowed to enter the room, but not win, so that it is shown that silence always overpowers.

It’s a shame how this becomes about best director winner Roman Polanski, and not the deserving and progressive winners that also shared the night. Ladj Ly’s police brutality drama Les Misérables won the best picture award, a rare moment of recognition for a black director in France, but by then everyone is too busy deciding whether to side with the man who just won best director, or the women who walked out, and hardly any discussion is warranted to the night’s big winner. Lyna Khoudri won most promising young actress for Papicha, but the rising stars are far from the conversation this year. There is a painful irony to the choice of best documentary winner as well; M follows the story of a child prodigy who is abused by members of his community.

France seems to be saying that anyone who speaks out about the racism, homophobia, misogyny, and especially the sexual abuse issues that are rampant in their industry should not speak. These are to remain an open secret, and these injustices are supposed to be coexisted with because France does not want to confront its downfalls. First to confront the issues in the industry during the ceremony was French-Senegalese actress Aïssa Maïga, who presented the award for most promising young actress. She called out the difficulties black people face within French film, including stereotypical/offensive roles, fetishization, and directly confronted actor Vincent Cassel’s actions. She was one of the few who joined the Portrait of a Lady on Fire team in walking out. Host Florence Foresti also took a stand, as she never came back onstage after Polanski’s directing win was announced.

In the end, they may have succeeded at humiliation, but there is more retaliation then approval. The board is stepping down over corruption discussions, and this public shaming of survivors seems to be their last act. Feminists spend the early morning rioting in the streets of Paris over the recognition of a pedophile, and Adèle Haenel has become even more of a symbol of power to them. They chant “we love you Sciamma and Adèle” outside a restaurant  where the award winners are eating after the ceremony. The two are held up by the many women fed up with the free passes given for sexual violence for their repeated push for accountability. Out of 1,700 in the room that night, only ten left. Everyone else is complicit in the celebration, most even clapped at the announcement, done by director Claire Denis, who was subject to a previous controversy where she was barred from attending a nominees luncheon as a guest due to the controversial/feminist nature of her films. In France, feminist is seen as a dirty word. At a Q&A in the United States, Adèle Haenel looks surprised to see the audience clap when she calls herself a feminist, because there it is controversial to speak up. Many celebrities have spoken out on social media to praise the women who left, overshadowing the cries of rudeness assumed by others. In the end, it is Adèle Haenel and the women of Portrait of a Lady on Fire who won, because their actions have become the voice of the night, even if the film has remained unrecognized. By spitting in the face of survivors, all the Césars have accomplished is flaunting their bigotry and denial for the sake of a few extra views.


Sarah is a freelance film writer who loves Portrait of a Lady on Fire, empathetic foreign cinema, experimental films that give you headaches, but mainly just Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She is currently directing her first feature film, which feels like it’ll never be finished, and will be the first to reclaim New French Extremity classic Martyrs as a feminist film (ironically or not, we shall not know). You can find her on Twitter @peppermintsodas

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