The best walk of Paris Fashion week wasn’t Kendall Jenner or the dual-generation Hadids, or even Naomi Campbell at Kenneth Ize. The best walk was Adèle Haenel, who marched out of Friday night’s César Awards after Roman Polanski won the prize for Best Director for “J’accuse” (English title: “An Officer and a Spy”). “La honte! La honte!” Haenel said while exiting the theater. “Shame! Shame!”
As has now been widely reported, Haenel is the first French actress to have made a sexual abuse claim against a powerful man. A former child actress, in November, she said that she was harassed and touched inappropriately by the director Christophe Ruggia beginning when she was 12 years old. He has denied her accusations. Haenel has since become something of a nucleus for the #MeToo movement in France, where she’s well-known. She’s now set for breakout recognition in the United States, given the buzz around her film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which garnered 10 César nominations, including her own, for Best Actress. It won only one award, for Best Cinematography.
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Polanski has been famously and comfortably on the lam from the United States since 1978, when he fled the country prior to sentencing after his guilty plea for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. He found a warm welcome among French aesthetes. Not that he was initially shunned by the Hollywood cognoscenti. Numerous Americans were among the 100-plus swells who signed a letter “demanding” his release after he was arrested in Switzerland on the outstanding warrant in 2009. Turns out, it was unnecessary; he eluded the law again.
But the world is a very different place now than it was in 2009, or for that matter in 2014, when Polanski won the last of his four other Best Director Césars, for “Venus in Fur.” Or is it? The film’s recognition by the César Academy — “J’accuse” garnered 12 nominations, more than any other film — caused outrage among feminist groups, and before the awards, France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester said that a win for Polanski would be symbolically bad. Polanski decided to stay away from the awards ceremony, but not before painting himself as a victim. “Activists are already threatening me with a public lynching, with some saying they are going to protest outside,” he said in a statement. “What place can there be in such deplorable conditions for a film about the defense of truth, the fight for justice, blind hate and anti-Semitism?” So he’s not only a victim, but a crusader of the greater good. (“J’accuse” is about the Dreyfus affair.) Ultimately, the brouhaha led the entire board of the Césars to resign in unison.
Yet Polanski still won. That means more voters voted for him than for any other director. Perhaps more distressing than Polanski’s César win is that he’s also won among a larger constituency — the public. “J’accuse” is a box-office hit in France. In 2020, how can that be? Should we infer that many people still wear blinders when evaluating the work of an “artist?” Does talent excuse depravity?
Certainly, there will always be intellectual handwringing about separating the art from the artist. But artists are people who make their art for other people. I won’t pretend to know Adèle Haenel’s mind, but her walkout felt like more than a political statement. It came across as a bold, brave visual reminder: There is human cost to continuing to reward the Roman Polanskis of the world. You can’t celebrate the man’s work without concluding that its creative merits outweigh the horrific real-world consequences of his personal actions.
Should we isolate art from artist? Last night, several artists made it clear with their words and with their feet that we should not. Haenel was joined in her walkout by her film’s director, Céline Sciamma, and several other actresses. Comedian Florence Foresti, who hosted the awards and opened with several barbs at Polanski’s nominations, did not return to the stage after the Director prize was announced. Regardless of its artistic merits, “J’accuse” will forever be linked with one indelible scene: A striking woman in a black dress storming out of a theater in protest. The Césars got it wrong. Adèle Haenel, and those who joined her, won the night.