The entire board of the César awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, has resigned two weeks before its gala ceremony amid growing controversy over the director Roman Polanski, whose film An Officer and a Spy leads the 2020 nominations.
More than 400 actors, producers, directors and film personalities had earlier demanded the “profound reform” of the César academy, denouncing its dysfunction and the opaqueness of its processes, in an open letter published on Wednesday.
On Thursday evening the academy said: “To honour those men and women who made cinema happen in 2019, to find calm and ensure that the festival of film remains just that, a festival, the board … has unanimously decided to resign. This collective decision will allow complete renewal of the board.”
The academy has come under intense criticism after Polanski’s film about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army officer accused of spying for Germany and unjustly convicted of treason in the 1890s, garnered 12 nominations for the awards, due to be presented on 28 February.
The Polish-born director fled from the US to France in 1978 after admitting the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl and has been a fugitive from the US justice system ever since, despite repeated attempts to have him extradited.
The inclusion of his film – titled J’accuse in France – on the Césars’ shortlist was condemned by France’s equality minister, women’s groups and film critics alike.
The head of the academy, Alain Terzian, accused of autocratic behaviour by his many critics, brushed aside the criticism, saying the academy “should not take moral positions” about giving awards, but French feminist groups have urged César voters to boycott Polanski’s film and called for a protest outside the award ceremony, to be held in Paris’s Salle Pleyel auditorium.
“When we mobilise, things happen!”, the feminist collective Nous Toutes (All Of Us) tweeted. Another group, Osez le féminisme! (Dare Feminism), said: “Imagine what’s next. A new voting panel without male self-confidence, opacity and sexism. Will we finally stop applauding rapists and paedophiles on the run?”
The academy said a general meeting would be held after this year’s awards ceremony to elect a new board and management to work on implementing reforms and modernisation. It had already announced a series of measures to boost female representation: barely 35% of its nearly 5,000 members are women.
The signatories of the open letter, who include the X-Men actor Omar Sy and Bérénice Béjo from the 2011 film The Artist, also complained that the founding statutes of the Césars had not changed in decades and that the academy’s members did not have any real say in its decisions or the running of the ceremony.
The academy’s board said in response that it would ask the national cinema centre, part of the culture ministry, to appoint a mediator to oversee a “root and branch reform” of its statutes and governance.
The accusations against Polanski long pre-date the scandal that has engulfed the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein since 2017.
But the director’s past has come under renewed scrutiny as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse has grown in response to the allegations against Weinstein, who is on trial for rape and sexual assault in New York.
Polanski has blamed Weinstein for his woes, claiming that the disgraced Hollywood mogul tried to brand him a “child rapist” to stop him winning an Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist. He also sparked uproar at the Venice film festival last summer by comparing his “hounding” to the antisemitic persecution of Dreyfus.
Polanski, who was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018, launched his new film in France last year days after a French photographer, Valentine Monnier, accused him of raping her in a Swiss ski resort when she was a teenager.
The accusation, which Polanski, now 86, denies, sparked a backlash against the film, publicity was curtailed and some screenings were cancelled after feminist protesters invaded or blockaded cinemas. Despite this, An Officer and a Spy did well at the box office in France, with more than 1.5m ticket sales.