Presenting a new and earthy face of French cinema, the outsider candidate "Séraphine" won seven awards at the Césars, the annual French film competition, including best film and best actress of 2008.
The near-clean-sweep on Friday night (February 27) will give this stunning picture -- the true story of a simple housemaid who had a secret talent as painter -- a new life in re-release after a mediocre box office performance in its first distribution.
And the bulky Belgian actress who played the title role, Yolande Moreau, can count on a mid-life career surge. Until now, she has been virtually unknown outside of France and Belgium.
A long-time actress, writer and director, she may have upended traditions in the French cinema usually dominated by leading ladies such as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Fanny Ardant.
Ms. Moreau's understated performance as an idiot-savant artiste, Séraphine Louis, contrasts in the film with the arresting designs and colors of her decorative paintings. It is a true story of a humble talent in the town of Senlis who is discovered and encouraged by a German art collector from Paris. The story turns tragic as World War I breaks out and the art market collapses. Deprived of her short-lived fame, Séraphine ends up in a mental institution.
Directed by Martin Provost, "Séraphine" also won the award for best screenplay, best photography, best music, best decor and best costumes. Hollywood actor-director Sean Penn, who presided over the Cannes Film Festival last year, handed the award to her.
Vincent Cassel, a more international figure with Hollywood credits as a "heavy", won the best actor award for the lead in "Mesrine, based on the life and death of the French career criminal and folk hero Jacques Mesrine. It was nominated in 10 categories but took only two prizes, Cassel's and Jean-François Richet's best director.
"Waltz With Bashir", an animated Israeli film directed by Ari Folman, won the best foreign film, beating out competition that included "There Will Be Blood" and Sean Penn's own "Into the Wild". It tells the story of the 1982 war in Lebanon from an anti-war perspective.
A lifetime achievement award went to American actor Dustin Hoffmann but he marred the event with an incoherent 15-minute ramble in English about the "cadaver" inside us all, a metaphor lost on the French audience. When a spectator snorted a suppressed laugh, he gave up, brought it to an end and returned to his seat.
Hoffman's speech was in character for the Césars, a notoriously unpredictable ceremony. Anything can happen there, it is so lightly controlled and scripted. Host Antoine de Caunes participated in several long, lame gags, including an opening dance to "Singin' in the Rain". He conducted the initial proceedings in a tux dripping with water. The audience winced but he found it quite funny.
He introduced Sean Penn in French except for one reference in English. Referring to one of Hoffman's performances, De Caunes said, "And by the way, you were fucking great!" The French audience stared blankly at the stage.
Emma Thompson, well-established as an elegant and cerebral English leading lady and writer, also misbehaved, cavorting around the stage in a long monologue in French. Later in the ceremony she played the straight woman in a gag about a presenter's top slipping and exposing her breast, apparently a wardrobe malfunction. The audience seemed mystified by her self-indulgence.
One unscripted moment brought a genuine laugh. When the cast of "Entre les murs", last year's Cannes Festival winner, appeared onstage to hand out an award, one of the young students grabbed the microphone and addressed "President" Sean Penn. In a reference to the unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy. he asked Penn,"Would you like to be our president too?" The audience erupted in laughter.
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