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Why France Picked 'Intouchables' over 'Rust and Bone': Let The Foreign Language Oscar Debates Begin (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst dissects the selections already made and previews controversies to come before the Oct. 1 submission deadline.

Untouchables (Intouchables) film still - H

An Oct. 1 deadline looms for countries from around the world to submit films for the foreign-language feature Oscar, and already a controversial decision has been made, with France announcing this morning that it has selected Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's The Intouchables over Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone.

The Intouchables, an $11.5 million inspired-by-real-events dramedy, concerns the relationship that develops between a quadriplegic man and his care-taker. It has become the second highest-grossing French film of all-time in France and also has grossed more than $355 million internationally -- more than any other French film and, for that matter, any non-English-language film, save for The Passion of the ChristRust and Bone, on the other hand, is a fictional drama about the relationship between two damaged souls that was co-written and directed by Audiard, a best foreign language film Oscar nominee three years ago for France's Un Prophet. It features tour-de-force performances from 2007 best actress Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, the Brando-esque star of last year's Belgian Oscar entry Bullhead.

Under the Academy's rules, each country may submit one film that was released in that country since last Oct. 1. And there has been a lot of suspense about which film France would choose.

Michael Haneke's Amour is the most critically-acclaimed French-language film of the year, but it was not even an option for the French selection committee. While the movie will open in France on Oct. 24, after this year's deadline, that wasn't the main issue, for Austria claimed the drama about the last chapter of a long marriage, which stars two veteran French actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) and premiered at May's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or). The Academy's rules dictate that a film's nationality is dependent not on the language that is primarily spoken in the film or the origins of its stars, but rather on the origins of the majority of its principal behind-the-scenes talent -- especially its writer, director, and producer. Consequently, Amour was always only going be claimed by one of the two countries in which writer-director Haneke holds citizenship, Germany or Austria.

(I'm told that Haneke, for his part, stayed completely out of the decision-making process.)

Germany submitted Haneke's last film, the 2009 German-language The White Ribbon, but Austria submitted the one before that, the 2005 French-language Cache. In the case of Cache, the Academy disqualified the Austrian submission because it had not been "predominantly shot in the official language of the submitting country" -- even though it had accepted Austria's submission of Haneke's French-language The Piano Teacher just four years earlier. But the ensuing controversy  -- as well as the virtually simultaneous disqualification of Italy's submission of the Arabic- and Hebrew-language film Private -- prompted the foreign language committee to make a change the following year, taking its emphasis off a film's language, thereby making it possible for, say, Canada to submit a Hindi-language film five years ago (Water), and Australia to submit a German-language film (Lore) this year.

There may be some sort of an arrangement between the German and Austrian selection committees by which they take turns claiming Haneke's films; all I know is that either country could have claimed Amour, and it was bound to be a slam-dunk nominee for whichever country ultimately submitted it. But Germany did not even attempt to do so. (It wasn't among the eight films on Germany's short-list). 

But back to France: With Amour out of the picture, the French selection committee faced a difficult choice: the widely-appealing but not especially artistically-ambitious The Intouchables (which is being distributed in the U.S. by The Weinstein Co.) or the artistically-ambitious but not as widely-appealing Rust and Bone (which will be distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics)? Some suggested that their job is to submit a film that represents to the world the very best work of the French film industry, in which case they would have had to send Audiard back for a second try. Others, however, felt that Audiard had his turn three years ago and someone else deserved a shot -- especially for a film that has been a box-office phenomenon at home and around the world. The latter position clearly prevailed.

France is no stranger to Oscar controversy. Their selection committee's most recent mini-scandal came in 2004, when they passed over the international hit A Very Long Engagement in favor of the tiny The Chorus, reportedly because Engagement was so heavily financed by an American studio, Warner Bros., that it wasn't quite French enough for their liking. Things all worked out in the end, though, as The Chorus cracked the Academy's final five for the best foreign language film, and  Engagement wound up scoring Oscar noms for best art direction and best cinematography. Perhaps the Oscar wealth will be similarly shared this year, since The Intouchables will probably wind up with a best foreign language film nom, whereas Rust and Bone will almost certainly bring Cotillard the second best actress nom of her career, which would make her just the fifth woman to have scored multiple acting noms for performances in a foreign language. (The others: Isabelle Adjani, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, and Liv Ullmann.)

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So far, the selection committess of 30 countries have announced their submissions. (See a complete list below.) Over the next two weeks, the rest will follow. Of the flurry of countries that are expected to announce their selections in the coming days, there are four that I think are worth monitoring very closely, because they each possess multiple strong contenders and will inevitably offend those who are associated with -- and supporting -- whichever ones they do not choose.

Denmark

The Danes have formally narrowed their field to three finalists in advance of their meeting on Friday at noon, local time: (1) Love Is All You Need, a rom-com set in the present day that was directed by Susanne Bier, who was nominated for the best foreign language Oscar six years ago for After the Wedding and won it two years ago for In a Better World; (2) Marie Krøyer, also known as The Passion of Marie, a historical biopic about a famous 19th-century Danish painter and his wife, which was directed by Billie August, who won the best foreign language Oscar 25 years ago for Pelle the Conqueror, but didn't direct another Danish-language film again until this one; and (3) A Royal Affair, another based-on-real-events period piece drama about an 18th-century royal love triangle, this one directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who is best known for adapting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books for the recent Swedish film trilogy.

Bier is certainly the filmmaker with the highest profile of the three, but her film, which premiered at Venice and then came to Toronto, could be at a disadvantage for several reasons: its subject matter is lighter than and lacks the gravitas of its competitors; it largely revolves around a foreign star (Hollywood A-lister Pierce Brosnan); and Bier was last dispatched to the Oscars -- and had her moment in the sun -- so recently that some may want to highlight another talented Danish filmmaker. That desire could also play against August and his film, even if his trip to the Oscars came a quarter-century ago. Arcel, meanwhile, is a young up-and-comer -- he turned 40 just last month -- who has never before been recognized.

I believe that the committee will ultimately select A Royal Affair. The film premiered at Berlin (where it was awarded the prizes for best screenplay, for Arcel, and best actor, for star Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) and then went to Telluride and Toronto -- the precise course that was followed by last year's eventual winner of the best foreign language film Oscar, Iran's A Separation. Affair has been warmly received everywhere. Indeed, after its North American premiere screening in Toronto's majestic Roy Thomson Hall, it generated one of only a handful of standing ovations that were issued at this year's fest. (The others went to Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Cloud Atlas, The Sessions, The Sapphires and The Impossible.)

Israel

The 30th annual Ophir Awards -- Israel's version of the Oscars -- will take place on Friday, and, as has been the case every year since its inception, the film that wins best picture there will automatically become Israel's submission for the best foreign language film Oscar. (Four of the last five submissions wound up being among the five Oscar nominees, a remarkable achievement that is unmatched by any other country.)

Of this year's five Ophir nominees, my sense is that the winner will probably be Fill the Void, which was written and directed by Rama Burshtein, an ultra-Orthodox female director, and revolves around a young Hasidic woman (Hadas Yaron) who finds herself caught between love and a sense of familial obligation. The film premiered Venice (where Yaron was awarded the best actress prize), then played Toronto, and will next play New York.

If the best picture Ophir does not go to Fill the Void, though, then the next most likely winners would be Shemi Zarhin's quirky comendy The World Is Funny, which did not play the fest circuit but scored more nominations than any other film in this year's Ophir field -- an unprecedented 15, including at least one in every category -- or Meny Yaesh's God's Neighbors, which premiered at Cannes and is about an ultra-orthodox "modesty patrolman." (I have less faith in the prospects of the other two nominees, Benny Toraty's melodrama The Ballad of the Weeping Spring and Yariv Horowitz's war film Rock the Casbah.)

The most widely embraced Israeli film of the moment -- it played Telluride and Toronto, and will next play New York -- is a documentary, Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers. The film, which features unprecedented interviews with six former heads of Israel's secret service agency Shin Bet, is ineligible for this year's Oscars, not because it is a doc (Israel's Waltz with Bashir was, as well, and still earned a best foreign language film Oscar nom and won the WGA's best documentary screenplay prize four years ago), but because it isn't being released in Israel prior to the Oct. 1 deadline.

Switzerland

On Saturday, a five-member jury will choose from one of five Swiss finalists, announced back in July, which have been screening all week at the Delémont-Hollywood festival (at the conclusion of which the past four selections were also announced).

Most seem to agree that the race is down to three films: Xavier Koller’s Someone Like Me, a Swiss- and German-language period piece based on a well-known novel about star-crossed lovers; Markus Imboden's The Foster Boy, a sad tale about an orphan whose foster parents make his life a living hell; and Ursula Meier’s Sister, a drama about a 12-year-old boy from an unusual family who becomes the resident thief at a local ski resort. (Neither of the first two films played the festival circuit, but Meier's premiered at Berlin, where it won the Silver Bear Award, and also played at the Los Angeles Film Festival.)

The other two sleeper possibilities are both dramas: Nicolas Wadimoff’s French-language Opération Libertad, which premiered at Cannes, and Christoph Schaub’s German-language Lullaby Ride, which premiered at Locarno.

Koller's film Journey of Hope was the Swiss submission and won the best foreign language film Oscar 21 years ago. That was also the last time that he made a film in Switzerland, and the last time Switzerland scored even a nomination for the prize. Both Koller's new film and Imboden's were nominated for this year's Swiss Film Award, but lost to Summer Games, the Swiss Oscar submission last year, which may be regarded as a taint on their prospects at this year's Oscars, and could shift the panel in the direction of Meier's sophomore effort. (Her first film, Home, was Switzerland's Oscar submission three years ago.)

Sister features terrific performances, beautiful production quality (especially its cinematography), and a powerful third-act twist that is reminiscent of Chinatown. It's conceivable that it might be punished for being in French and for starring two foreign actresses (Frenchwoman Lea Seydoux and American Gillian Anderson), plus there might be a desire to give a shot to someone other than Meier, who has already been to the big show before. But my gut feeling is that it will wind up as the submission.

Chile

Chile's Consejo del Arte y la Industria Audiovisual will convene to choose from a short-list of four films -- Cristián Jiménez's Bonsai, Pablo Larraín's No, Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva's Old Cats and Diego Rougier's Sal -- with the hope that one of them might deliver the nation its first-ever Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

Larraín's film has to be considered the prohibitive favorite. Coming four years after one of his earlier films,  the eccentric Tony Manero, was submitted by Chile for Oscar consideration, this one stars the internationally-renowned Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and brings to life a pivotal turning-point in Chile's history: the 1988 referendum about whether or not to extend the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. I would imagine that its attention to detail and ultimately feel-good story will prove irresistable to the Chilean panelists, just as it has for moviegoers everywhere it has played. It premiered at Cannes (where it won the Art Cinema Award), then headed to Telluride and Toronto (where it was similarly well-received), and will next play in New York.

If any film were to knock it off, I suspect it would be Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva's Old Cats, a dark dramedy about inter-generational, intra-family troubles. The long-gestating film reunites many of the principal talent from the filmmaker's internationally-acclaimed prior collaboration The Maid (which they co-wrote and Silva directed). It premiered at New York two years ago, played at Sundance and Cannes last year and opened in Chile this year.

The other two contenders: Cristián Jiménez's Bonsai, a romantic-dramedy based on a novel, which played at last year's Cannes, Telluride and Toronto fests; and Diego Rougier's Sal, a mistaken-identity western that has yet to play at any major international film festivals.

* * *

After Oct. 1, the Academy's foreign language film selection committee -- which is composed of members of a standing executive committee, as well as Los Angeles-based volunteers from across the branches of the Academy -- will begin the process of screening the submissions. Members must prove that they have seen a minimum percentage of the submissions in order to vote.

The foreign language committee recently came under new management when Mark Johnson, who had served as its chairman for the past 12 years, stepped down. Johnson has been replaced by producer Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who was his vice chairman, and former Academy executive Bruce Davis, who helped the two of them to implement new voting procedures over the past few years after several major snubs by the committee provoked widespread outrage. (The straw that broke the camel's back was probably the exclusion from even the short-list of Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won Cannes' Palme d'Or and was among the best-reviewed films of 2007. Mungiu is back in contention this year, having directed Romania's submission Beyond the Hills.)

The current rules call for the full committee to select six films for a short-list; then for the executive committee to then add three more films to the short-list, addressing any glaring oversights; and then for two committees, one on each coast, to view the nine short-listed films and vote to determine the five best, which will then be announced as the Academy's five nominees for the best foreign language film Oscar.

Here is a full list of the foreign language films that have already been submitted for the 85th Academy Awards:

  1. Australia (Cate Shortland's Lore, which just played at Toronto)
  2. Austria (Michael Haneke's Amour, which premiered at Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or, went to Telluride and Toronto, and will be in New York)
  3. Azerbaijan (Ilgar Najaf's Buta, a black-and-white film, which has yet to play at a major international festival)
  4. Belgium (Joachim Lafosse's Our Children, which premiered at Cannes and will be in New York)
  5. Bosnia and Herzegovina (Aida Begic's Children of Sarajevo, which premiered at Cannes, where it won a special distinction award)
  6. Bulgaria (Ivan Vladimirov and Valeri Yordanov's Sneakers, which premiered at Moscow, where it won a special mention)
  7. Cambodia (Chhay Bora's Lost Loves, the nation's first submission in 18 years, which has yet to play at a major international festival)
  8. Canada (Kim Nguyen's War Witch, which premiered at Berlin and then played at Tribeca, winning the best actress prize at both fests; it also won the best narrative feature award at Tribeca)
  9. Croatia (Branko Schmidt's Cannibal Vegetarian, which played at Moscow)
  10. Czech Republic (David Ondricek's In the Shadow of the Horse, which has yet to play at a major international festival)
  11. France (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's The Intouchables, which has grossed record amounts for a French film in France and around the world)
  12. Germany (Christian Petzold's Barbara, which premiered at Berlin, went to Telluride, and will be in New York)
  13. Greece (Filippos Tsitos's Unfair World, which premiered at last year's San Sebastian, where it won the best director and best actor prizes)
  14. Hungary (Benedek Fliegauf's Just the Wind, which premiered at Berlin, where it won several prizes, including a Silver Bear Award)
  15. Japan (Yong-hi Yang's Our Homeland, which premiered at Berlin, where it won the C.I.C.A.E. Award)
  16. Macedonia (Darko Mitrevski's The Third Half, which has yet to play at a major international festival)
  17. Morocco (Faouzi Bensaïdi's Death for Sale, which premiered at Toronto in 2011 and played at Berlin this year)
  18. Netherlands (Boudewijn Koole's Kauwboy, which premiered at Berlin, where it won best first feature and best youth film)
  19. Norway (Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki, which just played in Toronto)
  20. Palestinian territories (Annemarie Jacir's When I Saw You, which just played in Toronto)
  21. Philippines (Jun Lana's Bwakaw, which just played at Toronto and will be in New York)
  22. Poland (Waldemar Krzystek's 80 Million, which has yet to play at a major international festival)
  23. Portugal (João Canijo's Blood of My Blood, which premiered at last year's San Sebastian, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, and then played at last year's Toronto)
  24. Romania (Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills, winner of Cannes' best actress and best screenplay prizes, which just played in Toronto and will be in New York)
  25. Serbia (Goran Paskaljević's When Day Breaks, which just had its North American premiere in Toronto)
  26. Slovenia (Nejc Gazvoda's A Trip, which has been warmly received on the festival circuit)
  27. South Korea (Ki-duk Kim's Pieta, which premiered at Venice, where it was controversially awarded the Golden Lion Award over The Master, and which just played at Toronto)
  28. Sweden (Lasse Hallström's The Hypnotist, which will premiere at San Sebastian)
  29. Ukraine (Mykhailo Illienko's Firecrosser, which is already out on VOD in the U.S.)
  30. Venezuela (Hernán Jabes's Rock, Paper, Scissors, which has yet to play at a major international festival)