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Studio executives, renowned directors, and a crop of rising young talent huddled below crystal chandeliers in Paris’ Palais Royal on Thursday, turning out to fête “Benedetta” star Virginie Efira as she received the Unifrance French Cinema Award – a prize honoring those who carry the banner for Gallic cinema across the globe – in the presence of Unifrance president Serge Toubiana and the country’s Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak.

Organized as part of the Unifrance Rendez-Vous in Paris, the ceremony drew a fittingly international crowd, with filmmakers Emily Atef, Juho Kuosmanen, Sergei Loznitsa and Albert Serra joining “Athena” star Dali Benssalah, “Forever Young” lead Nadia Tereszkiewicz, “Mother and Son” breakout Annabelle Lengronne and “Everybody Loves Jeanne” director Céline Devaux for an intimate reception held in opulent surroundings.

Abdul Malak kicked off the Efira tribute with a victory lap of sorts, boasting about local theatrical attendance rates – which, with only 29% lost compared with 2019, marks the most successful post-pandemic rebound worldwide – while touting the 27 million international admissions Gallic films banked in 2022.

Unifrance president Serge Toubiana then awarded Efira the prize, praising the star for her range, likening her abilities to those of a “Swiss-army knife” for her agility carrying drama, comedy, tragedy and farce with equal aplomb. “The audience will follow wherever you take them,” said Toubiana. “You create intimacy with your characters, while maintaining their mysteries. This, without a doubt, is your signature.”

When Efira took the podium – joining the ranks of previous winners Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and “Intouchables” directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache – the Belgian-born star reflected on her own formative years growing up in a neighboring country and discovering French cinema through the films of Claude Sautet, Leos Carax and Bertrand Tavernier, among many more.

“Those works were foundational,” said Efira. “They shaped my desire to act and to make films; I wanted to pay that feeling forward, to help French filmgoers, and hopefully international audiences as well, share that same feeling of discovery and liberation.”

A fixture on the festival circuit, Efira brought Serge Bozon’s “Don Juan” and Alice Winocour’s “Paris Memories” to Cannes last year, and received rave reviews for her lead performance in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Other People’s Children,” which launched out of Venice this past September, and will make its U.S. premiere at Sundance ahead of a theatrical release from Music Box Films later this spring.

While thanking each of her recent collaborators by name, Efira made special mention of her “Elle” and “Benedetta” director Paul Verhoeven, comparing their respective paths as natives of Belgium and the Netherlands who both found recent glory working in – and, as was the case on Thursday night, being celebrated by – the French industry.   

Serge Toubiana and Virginie Efira Giancarlo Gorassini