Last night, the Cesar Awards took place. The most prestigious event in French cinema — their equivalent of the Oscars — was already mired in controversy this year following the resignation of the entire board of directors in response to complaints about the event’s lack of transparency. Many members of the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma expressed feelings of powerlessness over the voting process, an issue that came to the forefront after Roman Polanski’s latest film J’Acusse received 12 nominations. Various feminist groups protested both the film and the awards themselves, and the pushback continued in the event itself.
After Polanski received the award for Best Director for the fifth time (he was not at the ceremony because he complained that he’d be subjected to a ‘public lynching’), actress Adèle Haenel walked out. Haenel, who was nominated for Best Actress for her work in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, shouted ‘Shame!’ as she exited the ceremony, followed swiftly by her director, Celine Sciamma, and various other attendees. As Haenel and her cast and crew left the building, Haenel chanted, ‘Bravo, the pedophile, bravo!’
Adèle Haenel, who recently spoke about being sexually abused by her director from ages 12-15, leaving the Cesar Awards with Céline Sciamma following Polanski’s ‘win’: “Bravo, le pédophilie, bravo!” pic.twitter.com/8334hD3LMI— adèle haenel stan account (@arexnna) February 29, 2020
Adele Haenel has been one of the most vocal actresses in France calling out the film industry’s misogyny and abuses in recent months. She also candidly discussed her own experiences with sexual assault as a child, having accused director Christophe Ruggia of sexually harassing her from the ages of 12 to 15 after he cast her in the film Les Diables. As a result, Ruggia was expelled from the Société des réalisateurs de films, the guild for French directors, and this January, Ruggia was officially charged with sexual aggression against a minor by a person of authority and sexual harassment.
It was dishearteningly unsurprising to see Polanski win the Best Director Cesar award. He’s won it four times before so why not bring it up to five, right? A lot of prominent voices in the industry have dug their heels in on the Polanski issue in recent months, desperately clinging to the notion that his greatness as a director is all that matters and all we should focus on. We saw this at the Venice Film Festival last year, where J’Accuse won the Silver Lion. Separate the art from the artist and we’ll all be happy. It’s a staggering falsehood we’ve clung to for decades, a bastardizing of Roland Barthe’s Death of the Author theory that we’ve come to rely all too heavily on as a Get Out of Accountability Free card. We’ve stripped an academic theory of its substance and slapped it onto any issue that makes us vaguely uncomfortable as a means to alleviate that. We just want to enjoy Chinatown, is that too much to ask?
I’ve already seen people complaining smarmily that it’s silly for Haenel or anyone else to protest Polanski now given that we’ve known about his crimes for decades. That ignores how people have been pushing back against the film industry’s consistent celebrations of him following the unlawful sexual intercourse charge to which he pleaded guilty. Polanski has always been protested; it’s just that now those voices are impossible to ignore across the board. The Cesar Awards knew all that. They were painfully aware of the context in which they continued celebrating Polanski, and they still did it. They can position that as ‘rewarding the art, not the man’ all they want but in the current climate, it’s a move that cannot help but feel like retribution.
Rewarding Polanski will always feel like a giant ‘F**k You’ to the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter how eloquent or passionately argued your defenses of the man and his work are — and believe me, I have heard every defense in the book — ultimately, all you’re saying is that you think it’s perfectly okay to get away with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl if the abuser made Rosemary’s Baby. You prize people above art, and that dehumanizing mentality creates a truly insidious world. We live in that world every day. It was what allowed convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein to get away with his monstrous abuse for decades. Art does not matter more than people, especially those who have been attacked, abused, and manipulated in defense of it.
In the post-#MeToo era, we have already seen the backlash take root in devious ways. It’s evident in every right-wing misogynist politician who has adopted 4Chan-style rhetoric of women being ‘self-victimizing SJWs’ as a means to rile up their supporters. We see it in all the cable news talking-heads who oh-so-seriously try to debate if the movement has ‘gone too far’ and whether or not it encourages ‘cancel culture.’ As Max f**king Landis tries to mount a comeback, we see this slimy mentality at play once more. The Cesars saw the rhetoric, they felt the anger, they knew how utterly prehistoric and nasty it would look for them to reward Polanski… and they did it anyway. How can that not feel like anything other than a direct attack against every victim of abuse? How could they expect Adele Haenel to just sit there?
Jessica Mitford once said, ‘You may not be able to change the world but at least you can embarrass the guilty.’ Shaming the abusers was the only way we could get justice for the longest time, but how does that work in a system where abusers and their enablers feel no humility or disgrace?
We stand with Adele Haenel.
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