Archive for March, 2021

Bertrand Tavernier, R.I.P.

He was a reference for all self-respecting cinephiles, and certainly for those who at all follow French cinema (is it possible to be a cinephile if one doesn’t?). Looking over his filmography, of the thirty-odd films he directed since 1974, I realized that there were many I haven’t seen, including some of his most highly regarded (gaps I intend to fill over the coming week, via Netflix and VOD). But those I did see made a strong impression and for the power and sophistication with which they treated social-political-historical themes, e.g. ‘L’Horloger de Saint-Paul’ (1974), a story of a murder, with a subtext of workplace sexual harassment and the left-right political cleavage of the era; ‘Coup de torchon’ (1981) and its depiction of French petits blancs in a village in 1930s colonial Senegal: of lowlife Frenchmen and women who, because they were French and white, were at the top of the colonial social hierarchy; ‘L.627’ (1992), a quasi-ethnographic behind-the-scenes look at the functioning of the drug squad of the Paris police; ‘L’Appât’ (1995), a chilling tale inspired by an actual fait divers, of three youthful Parisians from well-to-do families who, utterly devoid of a moral compass, engage in a crime spree and commit murder. The last Tavernier film I saw, ‘Quai d’Orsay’ (2013), a comedy about a real-life French foreign minister, I loved (and which I reviewed here).

Tavernier was well-known for his progressive political engagements, and on issues important to me, notably the defense of sans-papiers (undocumented migrants, principally from the African continent). He had a high-profile role in the mobilization against the iniquitous 1997 Loi Debré (the big demonstration against I participated in en famille). His 1997 TV documentary ‘De l’autre côté du périph’ (made with his son Nils and which aired on France 2; not to be confused with a 2012 film of the same title) was one of the best of the time on the conditions in the Paris region’s immigrant-populated banlieues. And his 1991 four-hour documentary, ‘La Guerre sans nom’, was the first that gave a voice to French conscripts in the Algerian war, which had ended three decades earlier and for which they were not accorded the status of war veterans, the Algerian war having been officially designated by the French state as a mere “operation for the maintenance of order,” and not a war, despite some 16,000 French soldiers having been killed in combat over its seven-and-a-half year duration. Tavernier’s film—and the book that accompanied it—triggered the process that led to the French state changing that.

Jordan Mintzer, who’s one of the best American critics of contemporary French cinema, has an obituary of Tavernier in The Hollywood Reporter. See also the obits in Variety and The New York Times.

UPDATE: Volker Schlöndorff has a nice remembrance of “My friend Bertrand” on The Criterion Collection website. (Apr. 8th)

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College campus follies

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American college campus follies, to be precise. Hardly two weeks go by, or so it seems of late, without some crazy story from a US college or university about an identity-related incident or protest by performative woke student activists. The latest we’ve learned about, which actually happened in 2018, is described in detail in a front page article in The New York Times, dated Feb. 25th, by national reporter Michael Powell—whose beat includes “issues around free speech and expression, and stories capturing intellectual and campus debate”—that carried the click-bait title “Inside a battle over race, class and power at Smith College: A student said she was racially profiled while eating in a college dorm. An investigation found no evidence of bias. But the incident will not fade away.” A great elite liberal arts college in a wonderful town (if I had had a proper academic career, I would have loved to have taught there). The student in question was a woman of Malian immigrant origin—who is clearly 100% assimilated into the American Gen-Z woke culture—and with the persons who were “cancelled,” as it were, being (white) members of the custodial and food services staff. Right-wing media, e.g. Fox News (and of course Tucker Carlson), NY Post, National Review, and Commentary, naturally had a field-day with the story (which they were on to well before NYT readers learned about it). One may also add the conservative Bret Stephens’ NYT column (Mar. 1st), “Smith College and the failing liberal bargain,” which is actually not bad (and likewise, one may add, with Stephens’ Mar. 9th column, “California’s ethnic studies follies“).

Last month, before the NYT’s Smith College report, I was reminded of a similar-type story, from 2017, at Evergreen State College in Olympia WA (background here), by a stateside Francophile friend, who forwarded a 52-minute YouTube documentary that had been sent to him, titled “Evergreen et les dérives du progressisme,” with my friend saying that it looked to be the “film choc à alimenter la polémique actuelle en France” (my friend likes to mix up English and French with me), further adding that what one sees in the documentary is an “American freak show” and “fodder for a forthcoming AWAV.” Effectivement. And as a progressive US intello friend—who had not heard about the 2017 affair and to whom I thus sent the video—emailed me after watching: “MADNESS!!!!!!! This Evergreen stuff.” The film consists of footage from YouTube documentaries on the Evergreen affair culled and spliced—but not in an inaccurate or distorted manner—by a French social media personality who goes by the sobriquet “Sanglier Sympa” (Amiable Wild Boar)—and who’s pretty clearly on the right—and with his own narration, concluding with a warning that what one saw at Evergreen in 2017 risks coming to France (it being a leitmotif in France that whatever starts in America will eventually make its way here). In view of the current hysteria over “islamo-gauchisme” and denunciations (from Emmanuel Macron on down) of pernicious theories (post-colonialism, intersectionality, etc) and other identitarian threats from American and other “Anglo-Saxon” universities that are infecting French academia, le message tombe à pic.

The film is well worth the watch and with the narration, while excessive at points, not wide-of-the-mark. If one can’t follow French, then there are the English originals, notably the three-part series (1½ hours total) by filmmaker Mike Nanya, with the experience of professors Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying—the couple (evolutionary biologists both) that was constrained to resign from their tenured posts and leave the college—at the center; the 43-minute video “Evergreen madness: Why Bret Weinstein left;” and Bret Weinstein’s Congressional testimony in 2018. For those who are appalled by the spectacle of what happened at Evergreen—which I cannot imagine would not include anyone over a certain age, regardless of political views—Weinstein is the hero of the affair.

Watching the Evergreen videos I had a sense of déjà vu, as it recalled the student activism and protests of my undergraduate years at Antioch College in the mid to late 1970s, Antioch being a small liberal arts college in a bucolic village and which was, at the time, certainly the most “woke” in the country (along with Hampshire, Goddard, Evergreen, Reed, UC-Santa Cruz)—and which ultimately led to the college’s demise (well-described in a 2007 lead article in The Weekly Standard, linked to here). But the 2017 Evergreen protest was on another level altogether compared to 1970s Antioch. First, the shocking disrespect the Evergreen protesters displayed toward administrators and faculty—whom they all knew (there’s no anonymity in these small colleges)—and their copious use of obscenities; my memory may be faulty but I do not recall Antioch students addressing their elders (assembled) in such an insolent manner or using foul language during heated politicized confrontations. Second, the greater implication of the Evergreen faculty and (above all) the university administration on the side of the protesting students, some out of sympathy but more because they were cowed. The Evergreen spectacle gives an idea of what China must have been like during the Cultural Revolution—though with a slight difference: in China, teachers and other adults who ran afoul of teenaged Red Guards were in danger of physical mutilation or worse, whereas any Evergreen adult who stood up to the student mob risked little more than a screaming torrent of verbal abuse. From the student mob, at least. And if one needs reminding, the Chinese Red Guards were unleashed by adults, who then put an end to them when they decided to.

In this respect, the Evergreen protest and its outcome—as at Smith and countless other such incidents—points to the main culprit in what’s going off the rails in American higher education, which are the university administrations, which systematically cave in to the students and do not defend their professors or staff (in almost any dispute involving students). US universities are also pris au piège—entrapped—by their business model, of tuition-paying students and America’s customer-is-king ethos; they have become businesses and run by administrators from the business world—or, if they were initially academics, have assimilated the ethos and values of that world—and with the commensurate private sector salaries (whereas teaching is increasingly carried out by adjuncts who are more poorly paid than three decades ago). More on this below.

The Evergreen affair reinforced a thought I had after reading the long 2016 article on Oberlin College in The New Yorker—a sort of case study of the woke culture in liberal arts colleges—”The new activism of campus life: On trigger warnings, allyship, intersectionality, and what’s really eating Oberlin.” It seemed to me that the complicating factor in the toxic political climate on these campuses—and I say this at the risk of being “cancelled”—is the central role of students of color, women, and LGBTQs in the protest movements. If the woke student vanguard were made up of straight white dudes, the colleges could deal with them, and probably would forthrightly. But when women and/or persons of color are in the forefront, matters become more delicate, for administrators and professors alike, and which cause a more measured reaction on their part.

Another “cancel culture” brouhaha last month—this involving woke high school students—was the Donald McNeil/New York Times affair, which happened in 2019 but only came to public light in the last six weeks, following the exposés by reporters Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright in The Daily Beast, the titles and ledes telling you what you need to know. The first, on Jan. 28th: “Star NY Times reporter accused of using ‘N-Word,’ making other racist comments: The paper’s top COVID reporter joined a group of students on a trip to Peru in 2019. Participants alleged he repeatedly made racist comments;” and the second on Feb. 3rd: “NY Times staffers send ‘outraged’ letter to bosses demanding reporter apologize for racial slur: More than 150 employees excoriated paper brass for what they said was an insufficient response to allegations that a top reporter made racist comments on a 2019 trip with students.” The journalist, Donald McNeil, who was/is 67-years-old, had been at the NYT since 1976, and was the paper’s top science and health reporter—and with the Covid-19/pandemic beat over the past year—suffered the same fate as Bret Weinstein at Evergreen: forced to resign, here by the NYT “brass.”

As this latest instance in “cancel culture” involved The New York Times, it became a big media story last month, with reporting and/or commentary—for those not riveted to Twitter and who thus may have missed it—by, among others, Nancy Rommelmann in Newsweek, Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, Aaron Sibarium in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, and Erik Wemple and Sarah Ellison & Jeremy Barr in The Washington Post. As for the NYT itself, Bret Stephens wrote a column on the McNeil ouster that the paper’s higher-ups spiked, which was subsequently obtained and published by the NY Post as “the column the New York Times didn’t want you to see.” NYT staff reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones—who created the 1619 Project—was interviewed in Slate “on Donald McNeil’s resignation, what the reporting got wrong, and how she was involved.” And the NYT’s smart media columnist, Ben Smith, explained “Why the morality plays inside the Times won’t stop.”

On “cancel culture,” which is not a phenomenon I think actually exists—as people have been “cancelling” or been “cancelled,” and across the political spectrum, since forever; there’s nothing new in it—Peter Beinart had an excellent post dated Mar. 1st on his Substack site.

Last month, I participated in an extended exchange on the NYT/McNeil affair with an informal email discussion group I’m a part of, of mainly US (and New York)-based intellos (writers, journalists, NGO executives, academics), almost all Gen-Xers and Boomers, and all politically progressive (Sanders and Warren supporters during the Democratic Party nomination campaign). Trying to figure out what had happened inside the NYT (and with some having inside sources), a general consensus formed that while McNeil may be a curmudgeon and with a style—personal and as a reporter—that’s a throwback to a now bygone era in journalism (and in American culture), he had hardly committed a fireable offense. Losing his job over what reportedly transpired with the students on the 2019 Peru trip was unjust.

One thing that cannot be emphasized enough is that woke-related and “cancel culture” episodes do not cleave along left vs. right or liberal/progressive vs. conservative lines. The conflict is not ideological but rather generational. Solidly left-wing Boomer and Gen-X professors—and I know quite a few—have little patience for the performative wokeness one sees on college campuses (which Marxists of my day would label ‘ultra-leftism’, seen as an infantile disorder). The conservative anti-Trumper Charlie Sykes picked up on this recently in recounting, in The Bulwark, a story from Madison WI, which he said

exposes an under-appreciated aspect of the woke wars: the targets are not always retrograde conservatives. In woke precincts, it is actually far more likely that the targets will instead be other progressives who are insufficiently woke.

On Mar. 1st—after our discussion group exchange on the McNeil/NYT affair had wound up (and some 80 emails later)—McNeil offered his version of what had happened, in a very long and detailed four-part post published on Medium (Medium calculates that all four posts are an 81-minute read). Reading/skimming through his (convincing) explanation, with his detailed description of the interactions with the students on the Peru trip—almost all white and from exclusive prep schools—it’s hard not to side with him. A right-leaning friend was indeed so indignant and irate after reading it that she tweeted:

The NYT is in the hands of people who are both stupid and vicious. The idea that they would even for a moment take seriously the complaints of these pampered, self-righteous little shits is depressing.

And adding for good measure:

Pampered, ignorant, spoiled children, callow and ignorant of life, are now running the cultural show. The adults—who are supposed to teach them and set limits on behavior like this—are instead cowed by them, turning them into petty tyrants.

My friend’s ire was misdirected IMO, not to mention excessive in its censoriousness toward the behavior of a handful of 16-17-year-olds (who are not running a cultural show or anything else; and something I insist on: high school students are not “children;” post-pubescent juridical minors are adolescents, or teenagers, and should be referred to as such; they are not children). Among other things, McNeil in no way suggested that he held the students responsible for his termination at the NYT. Neither they nor the organism that sponsored the trip demanded his firing or had anything to do with what happened to him a year-and-a-half after the fact. As his account makes clear, the exclusive responsibility for his termination lay with the adults who run The New York Times—just as it was the Evergreen administration, not the screaming students, who forced Bret Weinstein’s resignation.

Returning to the Evergreen psychodrama and the warning by “Sanglier Sympa” that what one saw there presaged the future in universities in France: this is most unlikely given the centralization of the French educational system—and with the ministry of higher education at the pinnacle—and the fact that university professors (the ones with stable posts) are fonctionnaires (civil servants) and with full union rights. A Bret Weinstein-like story is not possible here. This said, the Red Guard-like mob dynamics of the woke Evergreen vanguard have long been present in French student movements, as they have everywhere.

I discussed my thoughts on this a week ago with a brilliant sociologist friend, who’s taught for some twenty years at the Université Paris-8 (Saint-Denis)—which is the most “woke” university in France (and the polar opposite of the institution I teach at)—was a Trotskyist (LCR) militant in his youth (wasn’t everyone?), and is a specialist of social movements and collective action. Prior to the discussion, I asked him to watch the Evergreen video (he has no personal experience with American universities, so found the Evergreen spectacle jarring; he joked that I had him watch the video to give him a “nightmare”). While appalled by the Evergreen students and their antics, he found them almost gentillet (nice, sweet) compared to student movements in France, which involve hardened militants, with barricades, occupation of university buildings (and the vandalism that ensues), and the real threat of violence—and with the engagement of non-student elements: of anarchists and other currents of the ultra-left, who infiltrate the movements and with the aim of clashing with the police (French universities—which are not residential—being fully a part of their urban environments; e.g. Paris-8 is at the terminus of a metro line and a stop on the tramway that plies the Seine-Saint-Denis). For this reason, university presidents confronted with occupations—and with the identity of the occupiers uncertain—will nonetheless not request police intervention, lest all hell break loose. And as my friend pointed out, university presidents also have to take care not to alienate the students or enter into a frontal conflict with them, as students (and the highly politicized national student federations: UNEF etc) are a component of the electoral college that elects those presidents to their posts—so thus a constituency to be courted. But my friend did agree that the outcome of the Evergreen protest is not possible in France, as there are too many institutional guard rails (note, e.g., the recent incident at Sciences Po Grenoble, of the two professors accused of “Islamophobia,” which was quickly nipped in the bud). And students themselves (not the anarchists, black blocs, and other outside agitators), unlike their woke American cousins, are not so ill-behaved and foul-mouthed in dialogue with administrators and professors.

There is also, at present, the prevailing political climate in France, which is hostile to eventual identity-type revindications expressed by the woke Evergreen student counterparts here. And the intellectuals fueling that hostility are highly organized and with a supportive audience in the centers of power that count.

I mentioned above that I would have more to say about US university administrations. On this, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent essay (May 19, 2020) by François Furstenberg, who teaches in the history department at Johns Hopkins University, titled “University leaders are failing: The pandemic reveals ineptitude at the top. Change is needed.” The essay may be read for free following registration. It’s well worth it.

UPDATE: My French sociologist friend wishes to add two points to what I roughly quoted him saying above. One is that while the Evergreen students may be “gentillet” compared to their French counterparts in their action (which in France invariably includes non-students of the ultra-left), there is, as he put it, a psychological violence in their behavior and words that can be traumatizing to those on the receiving end, and which may be experienced as a threat of actual physical violence. The second is that the situation in France in regard to the issues discussed here can change very quickly. Social media mobs, as with real mobs, are dynamic and unpredictable.

N.B. I have edited and modified parts of this post since initial publication, notably the sixth paragraph, so as to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

A further thought, on the intemperate, foul-mouthed Evergreen media arts professor one sees in the videos, who has manifest anger management issues (and eventually resigned from her tenured position): I find it inconceivable that such behavior would be tolerated from a colleague in a French university.

2nd UPDATE: On “cancel culture,” which certain progressive friends assure me does indeed exist, Tim Miller of The Bulwark has a take (Mar. 21st) worth reading, “Let’s talk about ‘cancelling’: People are conflating one real problem with two fake ones.” And Michelle Goldberg, reminding us that “cancel culture” is more a thing on the right than the left (and which is definitely the case in France, BTW), had a must-read column in the NYT dated Feb. 26th, “The campaign to cancel wokeness: How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.”

Also note Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column dated Mar. 17th, “Biden wants no part of the culture war the G.O.P. loves.” Another salutary position by President Biden, as I have been uncompromising in my insistence that politicians should stay out of culture wars and identity-related issues (beyond defending 1st and 14th amendment rights). Let these play themselves out in the cultural and societal realms (and eventually in the courts).

3rd UPDATE: On “cancel culture” primarily being a phenomenon of the right—as a weapon in the American right’s assault on higher education, among other domains of American life—what is happening in the state of Idaho is a case study (Idaho, along with other states in the mountain west, having experienced an important in-migration of conservatives from California since the 1990s). See the disquieting report (Mar. 15th) by The Chronicle of Higher Education’s senior reporter Emma Pettit, “A county turns against its college: In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as in places across America, disdain for higher education is thriving.” The college that is being turned against is not a big university with lots of leftists but the local community college. A quote:

What’s happening at North Idaho [College], while it reflects an increasingly common antipathy toward higher education, is also unusual. Even harsh critics of the sector, research has shown, tend to feel positive about their local campuses. But in Kootenai County, once dubbed the most Republican county in the most Republican state, many on the right have focused their ire not on the state flagship hours away but on the community college down the street.

And on the subject, see also Michelle Goldberg’s March 26th column, “The social justice purge at Idaho colleges: Republican lawmakers try to cancel diversity programs.”

4th UPDATE: From The Chronicle of Higher Education (Mar. 25th), a table with data on “Executive compensation at public and private colleges.” Obscene. What we also need is data on compensation for adjunct professors.

5th UPDATE: Blake Smith, a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, has a provocative article in Tablet (Apr. 5th), “The Woke Meritocracy: How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system.” (h/t David A. Bell)

6th UPDATE: Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, has a lengthy piece (Apr. 5th) in the libertarian webzine Reason, “A professor pushed back against ‘white fragility’ training. The college investigated her for 9 months.” The lede: “The chaos at Lake Washington Institute of Technology is by no means an isolated occurrence.” The professor in question has some issues—notably her dodgy political views—but what happened to her was unacceptable. (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

Robin DiAngelo, the author of the NYT bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and who appeared in the Evergreen story, also figures in this one. Her “diversity training” workshops sound like political reeducation camps in Maoist China or post-1975 Vietnam.

7th UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Emma Pettit has another report (Apr. 5th) from Idaho, “‘Anti-American,’ pushing ‘Marxism,’ and more: Do you recognize your college here? A free-market group escalates its war against higher ed, one robocall at a time.” It begins:

If you live in Idaho and you’ve recently flipped on the radio or picked up a landline phone when it rang, you may have heard a confident male voice on the other end, painting an ugly portrait of higher education in the Gem State. Public colleges are teaching students “to hate America,” the voice says, in at least one version of the recorded message. These institutions are promoting Marxism and socialism. They’re “attacking law enforcement, the Second Amendment,” and “pushing the cancel culture that threatens all of us.”

It’s time, the voice insists, to take a stand, and for Idaho to become the first state to stop “leftist indoctrination” on college campuses. “Will it work?” the voice asks before it answers in the affirmative: “We say, Yes.”

The “we” saying yes is Idaho Freedom Action. It’s the advocacy arm of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. Idaho Freedom Action’s campaign says it is an effort to “Fix Idaho Colleges” by pressuring state lawmakers to end “anti-American programs” on campuses, and says Idaho students are being conditioned to “apologize for being white” and “shut up because of their gender or race.” (The campaign lists more grievances, but you get the idea.) So far, Freedom Action has spent thousands of dollars on radio ads to reach “freedom-loving Idahoans” and placed tens of thousands of phone calls to inform citizens about “social justice on campus,” it says in a recent campaign email.

This culture war we’re in is not going to end anytime soon. And particularly with elected officials such as this.

8th UPDATE: More on the right’s assault on higher education—and free speech—this from the Miami Herald (Apr. 6th), “Florida GOP targets ‘intellectual diversity’ on campus with survey about beliefs.” It begins:

In a push against so-called cancel culture, the Republican majority in the Florida Legislature is ready to pass legislation that would require public colleges and universities to survey students, faculty and staff about their beliefs and viewpoints.

The survey is part of a broader measure that would also bar university and college officials from limiting speech that “may be uncomfortable, disagreeable or offensive,” and would allow students to record lectures without consent to support a civil or criminal case against a higher-education institution.

The objective, according to the bill sponsors, is to protect the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on state campuses. But university faculty members worry the proposal, House Bill 233, is likely to send a chilling effect on their freedom of speech.

N.B. The assault is only beginning.

9th UPDATE: I received this comment in an email (Apr. 7th), from a professor at an elite university:

[S]ome quick reactions. Basically, I think that the campus “follies” are mostly just that. The college kids – or faculty – get riled up about something and have a big protest. Usually, although not always, this happens when someone deliberately provokes them. And it usually passes. The kids forget about it, graduate, and there is no suite. A reign of terror it isn’t.

To give one example from my own university. This past summer, in the middle of the BLM protests, a group of several hundred faculty got together and signed a provocative letter to the administration. It called for all sorts of “woke” measures, including, most provocatively, the formation of a new disciplinary body to police faculty scholarship for signs of racism, sexism, etc. There was huge pushback from other faculty, including me. The letter was immediately cited throughout the media as a sign of the new cancel culture on campus. But what happened? Nada. There was never any danger of this new disciplinary body being created. And in fact, absolutely none of the measures proposed were ever enacted. It was performance art, not a reign of terror.

I don’t want to minimize the effects. The fear of being targeted does have a chilling effect. For people who are called out by the “woke mob,” the consequences can occasionally be very bad, although nearly all of the people targeted at places like Yale and Princeton (e.g. [a conservative colleague of mine]) are still fully ensconced in their protected, tenured positions. And there are a few places, like Evergreen, where the effects are worse. But even at Oberlin, the protests tend to have little suite. A few years ago, at Oberlin (where my daughter was studying music), a black student group called for the immediate firing of a dozen faculty and staff members they said were racist. They called for the immediate tenuring of all non-tenured black faculty. They demanded that all classical music students be required to study jazz, since the jazz students had to study classical music. What came of all this? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, a (black) non-tenured faculty member who was found to have been posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media was fired.

The other point is that none of this stuff really compares with the much more traditional, conservative form of cancel culture which really does threaten far more American academics. A friend of mine, a non-tenured faculty member at a Texas public college, tweeted about Mike Pence’s “demon eyes” during the VP debate last fall – and she was fired. Various state legislatures are moving ahead with bills banning the teaching of “critical race theory.” There’s lots more of this sort of thing on. Conservative members of congress and state legislatures targeting academics have real power, unlike student groups or faculty.

10th UPDATE: Another excellent piece (Apr. 8th) by François Furstenberg of Johns Hopkins University in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The era of artificial scarcity: Administrators have rushed to embrace austerity measures. The faculty should call their bluff.” In detailing the recent actions of the administration of his university, he describes “how fully a Wall Street mind-set had captured the nation’s university leadership,” and how their behavior is akin to that of “private-equity titans after a hostile acquisition.”

11th UPDATE: The typically smart and thoughtful Ezra Klein, in his NYT column (Apr. 18th), puts forth “A different way of thinking about cancel culture.”

12th UPDATE: Bret Weinstein, who now lives in Portland OR, reports in the UnHerd websize (Apr. 19th) on how ultra-leftists—the kind of people who tormented and verbally abused him at Evergreen State College—are wreaking havoc in that city.

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2021 César awards

[update below]

Voilà my annual César awards post, offering an occasion to write about French films of the past year considered to have been the best (not necessarily by me) and to make recommendations. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday) at the Olympia hall, in what will be a scaled-back affair in view of the pandemic-related restrictions. The list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations is ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ (Love Affair(s)), ‘Adieu les cons’ (Bye Bye Morons) and ‘Été 85’ (Summer of 85) with twelve each, ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’ (My Donkey, My Lover & I) with eight, ‘Adolescentes’ with six, and ‘La Bonne Épouse’ (How to Be a Good Wife) with five. With cinemas closed last year from March 17th to June 22nd, and then again from October 30th to the present (the virus situation permitting, they will hopefully reopen sometime next month), there were obviously fewer French films in 2020 than usual—and even fewer worth going out of one’s way for (unlike 2019, a great year for French cinema). I’ve seen most of those in the categories below that I weigh in on—in the theater or via streaming—though wasn’t able to catch a few that opened just before the second confinement, or lockdown, and which are not yet available on VOD.

So without further ado, here’s my verdict.

BEST FILM: Antoinette dans les Cévennes (My Donkey, My Lover & I).
This heartwarming comedy, directed by Caroline Vignal, was the best French film of the year in my book, a one-woman show by the excellent, radiant Laure Calamy, who plays a primary school teacher in Paris having an affair with the father (Benjamin Lavernhe) of one of her pupils; the two have plans to slip away for a romantic holiday but he bails out at the last minute, informing her that he is instead going on a hiking trip with wife and daughter in the Cévennes (rugged region in the southern Massif Central, if one doesn’t know it). Upset and on a coup de tête, she decides to go the Cévennes herself and join a hiking group—something she’s never done—in the hope of finding her amoureux, despite him being there with his family. So she rents a donkey—who does not take to her at first, though they ultimately bond—and walks the Stevenson Trail—the story is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes—meeting friendly people along way and (of course) eventually stumbling across her lover—and his suspicious wife. Une géniale comédie française.

My nº 2 French film of the year—and the runner-up here—is Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait (Love Affair(s)), by Emmanuel Mouret. If you’re a fan of Eric Rohmer’s films (which I am), then you will like this one; if you’re not, then you surely won’t. It’s a Rohmeresque “fresque sentimentale” (there’s no plot to speak of), of materially comfortable Frenchmen and women in their 30s (between Paris and the Vaucluse) exploring the meaning of life and love (and their adulterous affairs or desires, of course), and just talking and talking and talking. The sublime, beautiful Camélia Jordana leads a fine ensemble cast. A highbrow romantic comedy; not one for the masses.

One that is decidedly for the masses is Adieu les cons (Bye Bye Morons), directed by Albert Dupontel, who also has a lead role. This one was a veritable smash box-office hit before the second confinement cut short its run after nine days, and was mystifyingly well-reviewed to boot—and even more mystifyingly nominated for César best film. I won’t bother recounting the ridiculous story or anything else about it, except to say that it’s a slapstick comedy très française and—borrowing from the title—très con aussi. It’s supposed to be LMAO funny—a belly-laugher—but is not, at least not for moi. Question of taste, sans doute. A remark on the English title: “moron” is an unsatisfactory translation of con, which is an essential word (noun and adjective) in the French language (and one of my favorite, along with its derivatives, e.g. connard, connasse, connerie). There is, in fact, not a precise English translation of con, which lies at the intersection of nitwit, idiot, and fool (as an adjective, “fucking stupid” will do).

Été 85 (Summer of 85), by François Ozon, is not con. I’ll see anything by Ozon, though he can be uneven. This one, which opened to good reviews and the usual buzz accompanying an Ozon film, tells the story of a torrid summer romance, in the year 1985, between two teenage boys (16 and 18, the younger one working out his sexuality) in a coastal town on upper Normandy’s Côte d’Albâtre, and which ends in tragedy. The pic was inspired by a young adult novel (Dance on My Grave) Ozon read as a teenager, and which clearly marked him. The acting is good, as is the soundtrack (hit songs of the period), but the film, while perfectly watchable, didn’t do it for me. I thought it overrated. But that’s moi. Others will no doubt think differently.

On the subject of teenagers, there’s the documentary Adolescentes (also nominated in that category), which, so I read, follows the ups and downs of a friendship of two teenage girls over a five-year period. I’ll see it at some point.

BEST DIRECTOR: Emmanuel Mouret for ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Maïwenn is a nominee for ADN (DNA), which has an Algeria theme (so of particular interest to me), but as it opened just two days before the second confinement, I have yet to see it. So I’ll go with Mouret for impeccably executing a Rohmer-like film.

BEST ACTRESS: Laure Calamy in ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’.
A no-brainer. Obviously. Camélia Jordana in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ is second. Martine Chevallier and (especially) Barbara Sukowa are both very good in Deux (Two of Us), playing two elderly women (in an unspecified city, that looks to be Montpellier), who are neighbors on the same floor of a building but, unbeknownst to others, have had a long-standing relationship and whose passionate love for one another has never waned; so when one (Chevallier) suffers a debilitating stroke, the other (Sukowa) is determined to nurse and take care of her, and despite the vehement refusal of the former’s adult children and the hospital director (Léa Drucker). As for Virginie Efira—an otherwise fine actress—in ‘Adieu les cons’, as I couldn’t stand this movie, forget it.

BEST ACTOR: Sami Bouajila in Un fils (A Son).
The Franco-Tunisian Bouajila is excellent in this equally excellent Tunisian film (French co-production) by first-time director Mehdi M. Barsaoui. It’s tough to watch, even painful at moments, but is powerful, and which takes up numerous themes: paternal love, infidelity, patriarchy and archaic laws that ensue, corruption, terrorism, criminal traffickers (of contraband, persons, human body parts…). One of the best films of 2020 (and which made AWAV’s Top 10, needless to say). Lambert Wilson is first-rate as a wartime General de Gaulle in De Gaulle (which I had a post on last June). Niels Schneider is meritorious in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. As for Albert Dupontel in ‘Adieu les cons’, no. I can’t speak to Jonathan Cohen in ‘Énorme’, as this looked to be one of those grand public comedies that was not worth AWAV’s time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Émilie Dequenne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait.’
Dequenne is a fine actress but this one is kind of by default. Noémie Lvovsky and Yolande Moreau are both nominated for their (clichéd) roles in La Bonne épouse (How to Be a Good Wife), a comedy (what else?) set in a rural Catholic girls boarding school in the mid 1960s, that pokes fun at the already old-fashioned gender roles the school (Juliette Binoche as director) strives to indoctrinate the girls into, but which they all cast off—head mistresses and nuns too—in a moment of enthusiasm, as they march toward Paris on rural roads, in a final, groan-inducing scene, to join the May ’68 manifs. I didn’t care for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s character in ‘Éte 85’. Don’t know about Fanny Ardant in ‘ADN’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Vincent Macaigne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Pourquoi pas? Don’t have much to say about this category.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Fathia Youssouf in Mignonnes (Cuties).
A Star Is Born. Youssouf plays an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl in Paris’s 19th arrondissement caught between two cultures, in this coming-of-age film that caused some controversy in the US (though not at all in France) when it opened on Netflix last September; I’ll have more to say about it in a forthcoming post on recent films from France on immigration. Mélissa Guers is deserving in La fille au bracelet (The Girl with a Bracelet), as a teenage girl accused of murdering her best friend; a courtroom drama à la française (set in the Loire-Atlantique), with an original approach; there are a few minor implausibilities but it’s otherwise a gripping, well-done film, and with a top-flight cast (Roschdy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni). Camille Rutherford in Felicità is the devoted but not terribly responsible mother of an 11-year-old girl on the northern coast of Brittany, who is somewhat more mature than her parents. Julie Platon is good as one of the 30-somethings with états d’âme in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. India Hair (that’s a real name) in ‘Poissonsexe’: I didn’t see this one.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Guang Huo in La Nuit venue.
Why? Because I think this is the best movie in the category. Guang Huo—a recent Chinese immigrant in France—plays a sans papiers who works nights as a taxi driver in Paris, in the employ of the Chinese underworld to which he is in a state of permanent indentured servitude; falling in love with an elusive French strip-teaseuse (Camélia Jordana) he ferries around, he decides to extricate himself from his situation, but which is easier said than done; an engaging film, though with a jarring ending that leaves one perplexed. Félix Lefebvre or Benjamin Voisin will likely win for their roles in ‘Été 85’. On Jean-Pascal Zadi in ‘Tout simplement noir’, see below. Alexandre Wetter in ‘Miss’: didn’t see it.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Mignonnes’ (Cuties), by Maïmouna Doucouré.
On this one, see above. Filippo Meneghetti’s ‘Deux’ would be a worthy winner. Un divan à Tunis (Arab Blues), by Franco-Tunisian director Manele Labidi, is an enjoyable comedy about a Franco-Tunisian-bobo-Parisian psychoanalyst, played by (the Iranian) Golshifteh Farahani (sublime, as usual; and who speaks French with a native French accent), who decides to quit Paris and set up her practice in a banlieue populaire of Tunis, where she meets offbeat people and amusing things happen. Tout simplement noir, a mockumentary by rapper and television/radio personality Jean-Pascal Zadi, who is well-known in certain demographics, received media buzz when it opened last July, with its all-black cast—consisting of cameo appearances of an array of well-known French persons of African and Antillian origin in popular culture and other walks of life—and billing as a parody of a certain identitarian discourse prevalent among black people in France. An edgy comedy and on a hot topic. As the reviews were good to very good, I went to see it with expectations but left the cinoche disappointed. Pas trop drôle, en effet. Barely a chuckle, let alone a belly laugh. Maybe I’ll give it a second chance, but maybe I won’t. I didn’t see Nicolas Maury’s ‘Garçon chiffon’, which opened just before the second confinement.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Un pays qui se tient sage (The Monopoly of Violence), by David Dufresne.
A powerful documentary about police violence in France, with a focus on the Gilets Jaunes protests. It merits a longer post. Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes, by Rodolphe Marconi, is a touching documentary on the hard life of a small dairy farmer; it’s hardly surprising that small farms in France are inexorably disappearing. In La Cravate (The Tie), Mathias Théry and Etienne Chaillou follow the parcours of a youthful Front National militant in the Somme, during the 2016-17 campaign. A film atypical in its structure that may be seen by those with a strong interest in French politics or far right-wing movements.

At least two worthwhile French films from 2020 received no César nominations. One is the Rashomon-like Police (Night Shift), by Anne Fontaine, about three Paris cops—Virginie Efira, Omar Sy (the two are having an affair), and Grégory Gadebois—who are tasked with taking a Tadjik sans papiers (Payman Maadi)—whose political asylum request has been rejected—to CDG airport for deportation. The three develop different feelings as to what they’re doing, which play out as they head to CDG. The sequence with the Tadjik is not entirely credible—particularly the airport scene—but the film is otherwise compelling. An aside: there was clearly a concerted effort via social media by the extreme right—perhaps including cops—to trash the film, reflected in the artificially low notes spectateurs on Allociné (the great majority of trashers certainly not having seen it).

The other film is Les Apparences (Appearances), by Marc Fitoussi, a Hitchcockian-like thriller of a bourgeois French expat couple in Vienna—Karin Viard (tops, as always) and Benjamin Biolay, who’s the chef d’orchestre of the Vienna opera (prestigious position)—with the wife coming to suspect (not without reason) that her otherwise beloved husband has taken a mistress (and within their small community of French expats). And so she tries to get back at him. A slick pic and with a moral of the story: be very careful if you’re going to commit adultery, and be even more careful in having flings with strangers.

UPDATE: ‘Adieu les cons’ won seven awards, including Best Film and Best Director (Albert Dupontel). It looks like I’m in a small minority on this one (also judging from the reactions on Twitter). I was pleased that Laure Calamy and Sami Bouajila won their awards. The Most Promising awards for Fathia Youssouf and Jean-Pascal Zadi were received with bad humor tweets by right-wing racists. Full list is here.

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