Notebook on Cinema

March 1, 2020
The staff of the legendary Cahiers du Cinema walked just like Adele Haenel and Celine Sciamma at the Cesars, whilst Omar Sy and co. premiered their latest French film at Berlinale.

It seemed strange that the Cesars ceremony, the French Oscars, should take place during the Berlin Film Festival this year, and thankfully it was a one-off. Still, it was a year when the Cesars probably could be missed given the controversy over Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy receiving 12 nominations and the lack of a Hollywood celebrity receiving an honorary award to liven up the proceedings. (Brad Pitt reportedly declined.)

According to the trades, Adele Haenel and Celine Sciamma walked out of the ceremony as Polanski won the best directing prize and of course he was not there to accept the award, announcing in the previous days that he expected “a public lynching” by feminist activists. His cast and crew didn’t show either. In any case, Jean Dujardin failed to win the best actor gong for An Officer and a Spy [though my money had always been on Roschdy Zem who had won in the Lumieres, France’s version of the Golden Globes, for Oh Mercy!]

Swann Arlaud won the supporting actor award for his portrayal as the victim of a pedophile priest in By the Grace of God (look out for him in The Bare Necessity, the closing film of the Alliance Francais French Film Festival) and Fanny Ardant won for best supporting actress for La Belle Epoque (also in AFFFF). The best actress prize had everyone scratching their heads when Anais Demoustier won for her role alongside Fabrice Luchini in Alice and The Mayor when Noemie Merlant should have won for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In fact, Luchini was superior in another AFFFF entry The Mystery of Henri Pick, which co-stars the fabulous Camille Cottin [Call My Agent!, one of the best TV series ever].

Of course, the big win of the evening was for Les Miserables, the debut film by Ladj Ly who had likewise won in the Lumieres. In a year when French cinema was particularly strong, Les Miserables’ explosive story of cops patrolling disaffected youth in the French suburbs – and the effect of their injuring one of them – struck a chord. At the Oscars, Les Miserables had no hope of beating out Parasite – which won for best foreign film in the Cesars – though on home turf the film was bound to be praised for its audacity and explosive quality. It won for best film, best editing and the audience award, while actor and co-screenwriter Alexis Manenti won for best newcomer for his portrayal as a racist cop.

Les Miserables is a highly personal film for Ly, who grew up where the film is set, had troubles with the law and whose own son films events in the film as he had done in his youth. He is also one of the coolest and sweetest dudes whose heart is in the right place. He still lives in Montfermeil and runs a free film school with the likes of Romain Gavras, Costa Gavras’s son.

Interestingly, just as the Cesars were taking place in France, Omar Sy was presenting his new film, Anne Fontaine’s Night Shift (French title Police) together with Virginie Efira at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film, about a pair of cops escorting a refugee to the airport, seems like it comes from another era to Les Miserables and certainly all the reviews criticise the film’s upbeat ending.

While Efira (in Sibyl at AFFFF) will no doubt achieve her big international break as a lesbian nun in Paul Verhoeven’s French-language Benedetta, which is almost certainly headed for Cannes, US-based Sy is still best known internationally for his earlier French films, particularly the smash hit Intouchables for which he won the best actor Cesar and Monsieur Chocolat where he was nominated.

The well-built 42 year-old now appears in the French submarine thriller The Wolf’s Call (also at AFFFF) and stars in the just-released French kids movie The Lost Prince, which has met with middling reviews. In Hollywood he mainly has supporting roles and can currently be seen in The Call of the Wild and is reprising his Barry role in Jurassic World: Dominion.

He was keen to work with Fontaine, a specialist of relationship and humanistic dramas including The Innocents, Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovary, Marvin and Adoration which was filmed in Australia and starred Naomi Watts and Robin Wright.

“When a director comes to me, I am very curious and keen to try new things,” Sy explains. “I want to go to places I haven’t been before. So, when a black man in France in a cop’s uniform has to deport a refugee – that’s not easy, and I accepted this job to explore that.

“Sure, I like making action films with dinosaurs, but I also enjoy making films like Night Shift and looking at what happens with ordinary people. Ordinary people can be very complicated.”

Let’s hope that one day Ly might work with Sy in a movie. Now that would truly be something.

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