French film awards put diversity on show

French singer and actress Louane Emera (left) and French actress and Master of Ceremony Florence Foresti at the 41st edition of the Cesar Ceremony at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris on Feb 26, 2016.
French singer and actress Louane Emera (left) and French actress and Master of Ceremony Florence Foresti at the 41st edition of the Cesar Ceremony at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris on Feb 26, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
Belgian actress Deborah Francois speaks on stage during the 41st annual Cesar awards ceremony held at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, France, on Feb 26, 2016.
Belgian actress Deborah Francois speaks on stage during the 41st annual Cesar awards ceremony held at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, France, on Feb 26, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - France's top film awards ceremony, the Cesars, got underway on Friday (Feb 26) with screen legends such as Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve in the running and films about immigration and clashing cultures tipped for honours.

The highlight of the French film industry's calendar comes just two days before the Oscars are handed out, with the critically acclaimed Franco-Turkish production "Mustang" - also tipped for a best foreign language film Oscar - a firm favourite after receiving nine nominations.

The film by Franco-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven, tells the story of five sisters in rural Turkey forced into arranged marriages.

"Mustang" is among several films that highlight a diversity in the Cesars that critics say is missing from this year's Oscars, which have been criticised for being "too white".

There are a host of female filmmakers among the Cesar nominees and best actress nods from Algeria and Morocco.

Michael Douglas brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to the crowd, fending questions from reporters in French, ahead of his lifetime achievement award during the ceremony at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

Multiple nods have also been given to "Fatima", about an immigrant Moroccan woman raising her children in France and struggling with the language while her children can barely converse with her in Arabic.

Another favourite, nominated nine times, is "Dheepan", a thriller spotlighting the plight of Sri Lankan refugees in France that won the top Palme D'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

"Marguerite", about a diva who seems oblivious to the fact that she cannot sing, is also a strong frontrunner after being nominated in 11 categories.

The first Cesar handed out, that of most promising female actress, went to Zita Hanrot, born to a Jamaican mother and French father, for her role in "Fatima".

The film "Le Petit Prince" (The Little Prince), which has scored huge success abroad and is the first feature film adaptation of the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, won the Cesar award for best animated film.

Many of the nominees reflect Europe's struggles with the ongoing migrant crisis, which has inspired several filmmakers such as Italy's Gianfranco Rosi who won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his documentary "Fire at Sea".

Algerian-born Soria Zeroual is up for best actress for "Fatima", and Moroccan Loubna Abidar who played a prostitute in "Much Loved" - which was banned in Morocco - is in the running for the top award.

However French cinema royalty has not been forgotten in the Cesars line-up.

Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert - who between them have notched up 32 Cesars nods over the years - have been nominated for their roles as a couple reuniting for a trip through California's Death Valley after their son's suicide in "Valley of Love".

Catherine Deneuve, 72, the long-reigning queen of French cinema, picked up her 14th nomination for her supporting role as a judge trying to help a teenage delinquent in gritty urban drama "Standing Tall" ("La tete haute").

Women filmmakers are strongly represented, taking three of the seven nods for best director. In contrast, not a single woman has been nominated in that category at the Oscars.