French film awards accused of box office snub

PARIS (Reuters) - French cinema held its version of the Oscars on Friday in a ceremony where self-congratulation after a year of box office and critical triumphs was dosed by claims that the biggest hit of all was snubbed.

French director Martin Provost (C) and producers Milena Poylo (L) and Gilles Sacuto receive the award for best film for "Seraphine" at the 34th French film Cesar Awards ceremony in Paris February 27, 2009. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The annual Cesars awards provide the local industry with one of its annual highlights, with a glitzy if rarely glitch-free night often mocked in France for its mix of gushing tributes and onstage gaffes by stars and presenters.

This year, French cinema had an unusually successful period to look back on, with an Oscar for actress Marion Cotillard, the first French film winner at Cannes in more than 20 years, and the biggest box office success in the industry’s history.

But controversy is rarely far away and this year was no exception with claims that the Cesars ignored the popular comedy “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (Welcome to the Sticks).

The Best Film award went to “Seraphine”, the true story of a domestic servant who became an artist before World War One. The film won good reviews but it was no match for “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” at the box office.

The story of a post office executive transferred to the far north of France and forced to deal with rain, strange food and incomprehensible accents, “Les Ch’tis” attracted more than 20 million viewers to become the biggest French hit of all time.

Star and director Dany Boon, reported by the daily Le Figaro to have earned 26 million euros ($33.06 million) from the film, had declared he would not attend the ceremony because it has only been nominated for one award -- Best Screenplay.

But in the end he relented and even presented an award.

“I was at home in front of the television and I said to myself. ‘Don’t be stupid Dany, go on,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to sulk.”

A galaxy of French comedy stars had backed him, declaring that the awards have become the snobbish preserve of intellectual films that nobody watches and demanding a special award for “Best Comedy”.

Others, including Luc Besson, director and producer of a string of hits including “Le Grand Bleu” and “Leon”, have responded that “Les Ch’tis” was an enjoyable and unpretentious comedy but hardly great cinema.

As well as the surprise winner “Seraphine”, nominees had included “Mesrine”, the two-part story of a legendary 1970s French gangster, starring Vincent Cassel, who won a best Actor award for his performance or the schoolroom drama “Entre les murs” (“The Class”).

“Entre les murs” was the first French film since 1987 to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and its nomination for the Oscar as Best Foreign Film, crowned an outstanding year for French films.

But although the Cesars may have overlooked it, the industry overall has every reason to thank Les Ch’tis, whose success fuelled a bumper year in which French films attracted more than 86 million spectators at home and a record 77 million abroad.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau