Culture Trips

The naked protest at this year’s César awards looked radical. In fact, it was a national embarrassment | Film

Another year, another happening at the Césars ceremony, France’s film awards, which took place on Friday night. This year, amid the scatological jokes, sanctimonious, badly written speeches, and recriminations, an actor known for her fiery politics stood out. She appeared naked, covered in (probably fake) blood, and wearing dripping wet tampons as earrings. Nobody batted an eyelid in the audience, since the actor, Corinne Masiero, is a well-known face on French television, involved in all sorts of political agitprop. People in front of their TVs at home were less blase. Perhaps because some of them still look up to artists and regard cinema as an art form. Many of them felt terribly let down.

Masiero had a message for the French government. She had painted it on her breasts: “No culture, no futur” in English. “We are dying, we can’t breathe,” she later claimed. If many people question the current closure of cinemas and theatres, which could arguably reopen under strict sanitary rules, Masiero sounded more preoccupied by the financial plight of French artists. The only thing is, as many vented on Twitter, France has one of the world’s most generous artist benefit schemes. I know it well, since I was lucky enough to use it for a few years.

Created in 1936, the Intermittents du Spectacle system was first designed for the film industry’s artists and technicians whose activity is by nature irregular. It now protects 250,000 beneficiaries across cultural sectors including theatre, dance and music. All you need is to clock 507 hours of paid work in order to benefit from monthly state support for a whole year. The system allows artists between jobs to pay their bills, train or perfect their art, or look for the next project. In other words, it enables them to live from their art. You could call it a luxury, a privilege even, but it is an essential one, which French artists have repeatedly and rightly fought to keep. If they have managed to preserve this generous system through the years, despite successive governments intent on making it less liberal, it is because, as President Macron said, “Culture in France is absolutely essential to our lives as citizens.” And this is precisely the reason why, as early as last summer, the French government announced that unemployment benefits for artists would be guaranteed until 1 September 2021.

Knowing this, many French viewers thought Masiero’s intervention rang self-obsessed and hollow, if not plain grotesque: a bourgeois playing the radical. How typically French. If only Masiero’s jeremiad had been a show of solidarity for her fellow artists in the world, genuinely deprived of state aid, her words would have rung truer. In Britain, for instance, Brexit and Covid have crucified the cultural industries and their workers, many of whom have had to abandon their art and retrain as, for instance, drivers or couriers in order to survive. How much British artistic talent will have been lost to the world? I fear that the answer is a lot. Wouldn’t this be worth a few minutes of French spoiled brats’ precious anger?

I prefer to remember a time when French artists knew how blessed they were and chose to fight for others. I remember one year in particular: 1989, I was a teenager. On receiving her best actress award for her performance as Camille Claudel, Isabelle Adjani walked up to the stage wearing rich brocade worthy of Renaissance fables. There, she effortlessly and powerfully evoked the dark forces wishing to muzzle artists. She first referred to the artist Claudel, Rodin’s pupil and lover, a great sculptor in her own right, who was locked up by her family in an asylum. But she had something else to say, something even more pressing. Adjani took a small piece of paper from her sleeve. “Because we all thought that sentencing an artist to death belonged to the past, allow me to read a few lines from a text,” she said.

Question: What is the opposite of faith? Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself is a kind of belief. Doubt. The human condition, but what of the angelic? Halfway between Allahgod and homosap, did they ever doubt? They did: challenging God’s will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to ask forbidden things: antiquestions. Is it right that. Could it not be argued. Freedom, the old antiquest. He calmed them down, naturally, employing management skills a la god. Flattered them: you will be the instruments of my will on earth, the salvation damnation of man, all the usual etcetera. And hey presto, the end of protest, on with the haloes, back to work. Angels are easily pacified; turn them into instruments and they’ll play your harpy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of behing-their-own-eyes. Of what, as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed peepers … angels, they don’t have much in the way of a will. To will is to disagree; not to submit; to dissent.”

After a pause, Adjani concluded: “Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses.” Three weeks earlier, on 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling for his death. Adjani’s restraint, dignity and calm all contributed to the stunned silence that met her last words, and then the rousing applause that followed.

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