Contenders mirror concerns, also entertain

The prison system (“A Prophet”), education (“Skirt Day”), immigration (“Welcome”), unemployment (“In the Beginning”), the obscenely rich (“Rapt”): On the surface, this year’s Cesar nominations might double as the syllabus for a Civics 101 class. But the reality is they provide a telling snapshot of modern-day France.

If there’s a sense that French audiences are being unwillingly lectured to, the box office tells a different story. It appears that in the land where social issues and cinematic engagement are not mutually exclusive — witness 2008’s “The Class,” which earned five Cesar noms, raked in more than $13 million and sparked much public debate — social issues are not a turn-off.

To wit, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” which led this year’s nominations with 13, sold 1.2 million tickets at the French turnstiles, and Philippe Lioret’s “Welcome” was not far behind with a million sold. Meanwhile Jean-Paul Lilienfeld’s “Skirt Day,” starring Isabelle Adjani as a hostage-taking teacher, was watched by 2.2 million TV viewers on the Franco-German network ARTE before it was released in cinemas.

The nominations for best film were rounded out by Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass” and Radu Mihaileanu’s “The Concert,” which mixed classical music, comedy and pathos while attracting more than 2 million movie viewers.

The fact that the nominations mirrored popular opinion was not lost on Academy president Alain Terzian. “There’s nothing more troubling than when the members of the Academy’s tastes do not coincide with the public’s,” he says, “because then people lose interest in the awards. Thank God that wasn’t the case this year.”

Terzian, who could have easily been echoing the U.S. Academy’s feelings about this year’s “Avatar”-friendly Oscar noms, was much less happy last year when no room could be found in the best film category for the top French B.O. pic of all time “Welcome to the Sticks.”

While there was still no room in this year’s list for comedy hits like “Le Petit Nicolas,” the commercial and critical success of pics like “A Prophet” and “The Concert” has kept most of the traditional nay-sayers quiet and artistic cachet intact.

“(The nominees) are not films made purely for entertainment,” Terzian says. “They are films with a social conscience, which intelligently observe and reflect on society’s problems.”

At the same time, the Cesars’ traditionally waspish reputation seems to be disappearing. Before the noms were announced, “A Prophet’s” casting director Richard Rousseau would have bet money on the film’s young star Tahar Rahim being named in the best young hope category but omitted from the best actor category.Rahim ended up in both. Also surprising was the best supporting nom for controversial French rapper Joey Starr’s turn in Maiween Le Besco’s “The Actress’ Ball.”

TIP SHEET

What: 35th annual Cesar Awards

When: Feb. 27

Where: Chatelet Theater, Paris

Wattage: Marion Cotillard (honorary president); presenters Valerie Lemercier and Gad Elmaleh

Homage: New Wave director Eric Rohmer, who died Jan. 11

Honorary Cesar: Harrison Ford will receive a career award from Sigourney Weaver.

Web: academie-cinema.com

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