Cesar Awards Preview: Can Breakout Directors Beat Old-School Rivals?

This year’s Cesar Awards pit old-school establishment contenders against a younger, more independent guard that might not have been so readily acknowledged a decade or two ago.

It’s an exciting slate, but also a transitional one.

With top nominations for spiky breakout directors including Julia Ducournau and Hubert Charuel, the future of French cinema is accounted for; with such names as Mathieu Amalric and Michel Hazanavicius also in the mix, for bio-pics of cultural icons Barbara, the French singer, and Jean-Luc Godard, respectively, its present and past are right alongside them.

Even among the more established players, marked contrasts abound. Leading the field with 13 nominations apiece are Robin Campillo’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and Albert Dupontel’s “See You Up There,” two local success stories with little in common save for the shared presence of Argentinian rising star Nahuel Perez Biscayart. (He’s nominated for most promising actor for his leading turn in Campillo’s film; with likely bonus points from voters for Dupontel’s, he’ll be tough to beat.)

BPM (Beats Per Minute)” has been the expected front-runner since it took Cannes by storm in May. Informed by the rhetorical drive of Campillo’s collaborations with director Laurent Cantet — including “The Class,” for which he won a screenplay Cesar in 2009 — this sprawling, impassioned, deeply personal study of 1990s AIDS activist collective ACT-UP won the Grand Jury Prize on the Croisette. Across the pond, it scooped wins from the New York and Los Angeles critics, and it was tipped for Oscar glory until, in one of the bigger upsets of the U.S. awards season, it failed to make the December shortlist for foreign-language film. It’ll be seeking some hometown consolation at the Cesars, if its defiantly queer spirit doesn’t count against it with more timid voters; after all, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” lost out here a few years back.

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“See You Up There” could benefit from a more conservative voting streak. Its broadly beloved writer-director-star Dupontel, who recently won a writing Cesar for his comedy “Nine Month Stretch,” connected with the public to the tune of $15 million — double “BPM’s” domestic gross — with this rousing tale of two World War I veterans seeking revenge on the lieutenant who ruined their lives. Stuffed with name actors and handsome production values, it’s classic Cesar bait, though if voters are in an even more populist mood, they could plump for the highest-grossing nominee, “C’est la vie!” — a jaunty wedding-planner comedy from “The Intouchables” directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano that rang up $23 million in receipts last year.

That sunny blockbuster is a world away from the low-key wild card of this year’s Cesar race: First-time feature director Charuel’s “Bloody Milk,” a stark, solemn agricultural thriller from the indie fringes that premiered in Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar last year, is the low-key wild card. Don’t count it out on the basis of its modest profile: It could prove a giant-slayer like 2015’s “Fatima,” which beat such major players as “Dheepan” and “Marguerite” to the best film prize two years ago. The Cesars go off-script more often than their Hollywood counterpart: It might be unwise to declare any also-rans in a best film field that also includes Yvan Attal’s student-professor drama “Le Brio” and Amalric’s dreamily fragmented semi-biography, “Barbara.”

Ducournau is the lone female nominee in a seven-wide director field, while she could give Charuel a run for his money in the first feature race with her daring feminist cannibal horror “Raw.” A hungry new generation is nipping at the older one’s heels: depending on which way they swing, the members of Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma may not just be voting for their favorites of the past year, but their brightest hopes for several years to come.

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