'L'enveloppe, s'il vous plai^t'

Richard Covington is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In France, they're called Cesars and resemble miniature traffic jams frozen in gold.

In Britain, they look like bronze Greek masks and are nicknamed the BAFTA, after the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Italy has its Donatellos, Germany its Deutsche Film Prizes and Spain its Goyas. Russia and Japan have their own film awards. Collectively, however, they are all Oscar's children, televised local spinoffs of Hollywood's Academy Awards intended to boost attention and audiences for indigenous movie productions.

Each country has its own style--the televised French awards show has no commercials or live performances--but everyone, it seems, wants to get into the act.

Only Britain's BAFTA awards place U.S. films in head-to-head competition with local films. At the upcoming 50th awards ceremony next month, "L.A. Confidential" and "Titanic" are vying for best film with home-grown productions "The Full Monty" and "Mrs. Brown." In France, Italy and other countries, American films compete under a foreign-film category.

In Germany, the awards bring not only welcome publicity, but something filmmakers might even covet more: substantial financing for future productions--up to 1 million German marks ($550,000) per film in government subsidies. Virtually all the major German filmmakers over the past three decades of the awards, including Volker Schlondorff, Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, counted on prize money to jump-start their careers.

"We didn't just win a prize; we lived off it," quips Schlondorff.

By contrast, the Felix awards, the well-intentioned Oscar alternative invented by the European Film Academy, have so far failed to ignite much enthusiasm in the 10 years since they were created.

According to Schlondorff, one of the academy founders, too few European films cross borders for a pan-European award to succeed.

"The film festival awards at Cannes, Venice and Berlin are better substitutes," he argues. "They're more lively and more glamorous."

Apart from Britain's BAFTA awards, which are presided over by Princess Anne and hosted this year by noted British comic Rory Bremner, perhaps the closest competitor to Oscar's glitz factor are France's Cesar ceremonies, generally a fail-safe barometer for the occasionally disputatious, always entertaining French film community.

With a wickedly sophomoric sendup of "Titanic," a couple of playful and not-so-playful swipes at Hollywood and thunderous applause for honorees Michael Douglas and Clint Eastwood, the 23rd Cesar awards, held last month, gave the French film industry a chance to reflect on a banner year.

Unlike the Oscar lovefest, however, the Cesars sometimes have to fight the very actors and directors they are intended to honor.

"There are people who explode with joy at winning and others who seem embarrassed, as if they want to show how detached they are," explains Patrice Leconte, director of "Ridicule," who shared a 1997 award for best film and was France's Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film last year.

"To come onto the stage chewing gum, without a tie, only to make two or three stupid comments, as some winners have done, I find a total travesty," says Leconte.

As for persuading unnominated actors and directors to attend, you'd have more luck raising the Titanic.'

"Actors in particular don't like to go to a ceremony if there is no chance of being awarded. This is typically French, helas," bemoans Daniel Toscan du Plantier, president of the Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques, which produced the ceremony with French pay television network Canal Plus.

Antoine de Caunes, the wisecracking host of the awards for the past three years, is even blunter. "If they're not nominated, they don't give a [expletive] about the Cesars."

To be fair, for every seemingly ungrateful winner and absent star, there are a dozen recipients who positively bask in the acclaim. Ariane Ascaride, the unknown revelation of "Marius and Jeannette," a gritty fable of working-class Marseilles directed by husband Robert Guediguian, fought back tears as she accepted the award for best actress and gave thanks to all "the combative, dignified, anonymous women who work to change their world."

Inspired by the success of the Oscars in promoting Hollywood films, movie publicist Georges Cravenne staged the first Cesar awards ceremony in 1976 with Romy Schneider named best actress for "L'Important, C'est d'Aimer" (Loving Is the Most Important Thing) and Philippe Noiret as best actor in Roberto Enrico's "Le Vieux Fusil" (The Old Rifle), which also won the award for best film.

This year, Alain Resnais' oddball musical comedy "On Connait la Chanson" (We Know the Song) swept the awards with seven Cesars, including best film and best actor for Andre Dussollier. Luc Besson received his first Cesar this year for best director for "The Fifth Element." "Besson was distrusted because his films were too successful," complains De Caunes, "but perhaps his award means this resistance to commercial films is changing."

Originally, the Cesars, named for their sculptor-creator Cesar Baldaccini, closely mimicked their long-winded predecessor, with songs and dance interludes that spun out long into the night.

But for the past three years, the French ceremony has taken a more minimalist approach, eliminating all live performances and speeding up its leisurely pace. Unlike the Oscars, the Cesars never had commercial breaks.

"Squeezing in 18 awards in 2 hours and 15 minutes is a record for us," crows de Caunes. (By contrast, the Oscars weigh in at close to 3 1/2 hours.) The budget is similarly lean, with the Cesars costing 8 million francs ($1.3 million) to produce and reaching 2.7 million French viewers, compared to the billion or so viewers the U.S. academy claims to reach worldwide.

Less of a grand spectacle and more improvised than the Oscars, the Cesars often produce moments of unforeseen comedy and rare emotion.

In ceremonies past, Sean Connery grabbed an unsuspecting Jeanne Moreau and waltzed across the stage. Michel Serrault, the star of "Les Cages aux Folles" and more recently "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud," shambled onstage in robe and pajamas, gabbed a bit with a bemused Charles Aznavour and proceeded to dump a plate of spaghetti on his own head, to the polite astonishment of the audience.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of recent years came in 1993 when Romane Bohringer memorialized director Cyril Collard, who had died of complications of AIDS three days before, on accepting his award for "Les Nuits Fauves" (Savage Nights) as best film.

In an endearing plea at this year's ceremony, waif-like Emma de Caunes, the host's daughter, raised aloft her award as best female hopeful, and reminded the audience and television viewers that her film "Un Frere" (A Brother) was still only playing in one movie theater in Paris.

Despite a robust national cinema, with 140 films produced last year, mustering attention--and cinema bookings--is no easy task for local films, even with a Cesars.

Winning a Cesar, however, can provide an enormous boost. For "Ridicule," which had already been in distribution for nine months and had sold 2 million tickets before winning last year's award for best film, the Cesar added 200,000 more ticket sales in France, according to director Leconte.

For others, however, the awards can be a poisoned chalice. One award-winning cinematographer didn't work for a year after receiving his Cesar. "People thought the award meant I was going to be too expensive--and that I would already have too much work," the cinematographer told Leconte. "So no one called for a year."

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